Dam Lawsuit Put on Hold for Negotiationsby Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, September 12, 2003
Irrigators, salmon backers to come to table
U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo on Thursday headed off a water fight between environmentalists and irrigation interests that threatened to escalate out of control.
The Idaho Republican will convene a series of negotiations designed to stop a lawsuit that he said could be devastating for the state's economy.
At Crapo's request, four environmental groups Thursday withdrew, for at least 30 days, a legal notice to sue federal dam operators in Idaho. The potential suit had prompted water users to urge their followers to back away from unrelated talks that could lead to new wilderness in Idaho.
Now those groups of canal companies, farmers and ag businesses will join environmentalists in the talks, averting what they said could lead to the draining of Idaho's reservoirs and permanent damage to the state's $3.5 billion agriculture economy.
Environmentalists said they brought the suit to improve migration conditions for salmon, a cultural icon of the Pacific Northwest, to help communities like Salmon, which no longer get the financial benefits that come from salmon fishing.
"I appreciate that these groups so quickly responded to my request to sit down and talk through these issues critical to Idaho," Crapo said. "Now, we must roll up our sleeves and decide on dates and venues to hold these meetings."
After nearly a week of trading press releases and rhetoric, both sides declared victory.
"It is our collective hope that we can resolve the issues in this case through negotiation rather than litigation," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, one of the environmental groups involved.
Idaho Rivers, along with the Idaho Conservation League, American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation, filed a 60-day notice in August claiming the Bureau of Reclamation is violating the federal Endangered Species Act.
The main issue of the potential lawsuit was whether the Bureau of Reclamation and Idaho are flushing enough water down the Snake River to aid salmon migration. For more than a decade, Idaho has committed to sending 427,000 acre-feet of water — equal to about two days' flows over Shoshone Falls at high water — downstream from southern Idaho reservoirs.
But in the past two drought years, no reservoir water has been flushed downriver. In addition to a comprehensive study of water and salmon, Sedivy said salmon advocates want to make it easier for farmers to sell or lease their water to help salmon.
If environmentalists really are committed to obtaining water only from willing sellers, there is a basis for talks, said Scott Campbell, a Boise attorney who represents several canal companies, irrigation districts and businesses that depend on a reliable water supply.
"If people are reasonable, I think we can work something out," Campbell said. "I'm encouraged."
Norm Semanko, Idaho Water Coalition president, said the talks must address broad salmon-recovery issues such as habitat improvement and the possibility of building additional storage reservoirs. Dam breaching is not on the table, he said. "The environmental lawsuit participants are already on record as accepting the conditions of willing seller-willing buyer as a given, and we will hold them to it," Semanko said.
Crapo has long warned federal officials that unless they carry through with all of the commitments made in 2001 to aid salmon short of breaching dams, the issue could well end up back on the table in the Northwest. He just convinced the Senate to steer $5 million to Idaho for salmon-recovery efforts.
"Consistent with the history of these issues, everyone needs to anticipate just how difficult it will continue to be to make progress," Crapo said. "It is, however, very encouraging that everyone is willing to talk rather than litigate."
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