Conservationists Put Idaho Water Talks on Holdby Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, October 20, 2003
Talks in Idaho over more water for fish are on hold while conservation groups decide whether to continue discussions being brokered by Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID).
Federal agencies and irrigators met with the groups several times over the past month to head off a potential lawsuit. Now Crapo wants conservationists to hold off any potential litigation until next June.
But Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, said it will be at least several weeks before they decide whether to keep on talking. "We want to make sure we're not selling the fish short," he told NW Fishletter." He said they must gauge the potential for real gains.
The groups, which include the Idaho Conservation League, American Rivers, and the National Wildlife Federation, had withdrawn their "intend to sue" letter to federal agencies for 30 days as a show of faith before the talks began in Boise last month. But time ran out on Oct. 13.
Back in September, Idaho Conservation League director Justin Hayes said they hoped their original letter would get parties talking about more upper Snake water for migrating salmon.
"Our overriding concern," Hayes said in a Sept. 11 letter to Crapo, "is to provide salmon and steelhead critically needed help, including water, at a time when the Administration and its agencies are failing to deliver their promised measures for salmon virtually across the board."
In their original notice, the groups said that the water was needed to recover fish runs, especially fall chinook, as long as the four lower Snake dams stayed in place.
The potential lawsuit takes aim at a biological opinion developed by the Bureau of Reclamation that looked at 10 irrigation projects on the upper Snake and concluded that the water wasn't needed to help ESA-listed fish runs. NOAA Fisheries agreed.
Currently, Idaho ponies up 427,000 acre-feet a year to help salmon on a "willing buyer, willing seller" basis. It's part of the 2000 biological opinion approved by NOAA Fisheries that governs federal hydro operations in the Columbia Basin.
But the environmental groups point out that flow targets in the hydro BiOp are rarely met, and more water is needed to satisfy its demands.
However, irrigators and Idaho water agency officials say that the lower Snake flow targets generally cannot be met even in average water years. And they point out recent fish runs are setting records in Idaho.
Norm Semanko, director of the Idaho Water Coalition, says the groups claim they don't want to dry up farmers' fields, but that's what would happen if they got their way.
"We showed them the math," Semanko said. He said that about 3 million acre-feet of additional water would have had to come from the upper Snake to meet 2003 summer flow targets in the lower Snake, which would have effectively dried up about a million acres of irrigated agricultural lands in his state.
Earlier, Semanko had called flow augmentation "a failed experiment that has been wholly discredited by the scientific community."
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