the film
Commentaries and editorials

Salmon Recovery Needs Realistic Options

by Butch Otter
Idaho Falls Post Register, November 5, 2003

A leader of Idaho Rivers United recently took me to task in the Post Register for opposing environmental extremists' attempt to hijack Idaho's water. Using the Endangered Species Act as a weapon, their scheme is to ransom all the water in the Snake River Basin for the breaching of four Lower Snake River dams.

Stripped of its rhetorical flourishes, here's how I read the criticism: Otter won't trade Idaho's water for advocacy science and pie-in-the-sky economic claims. Shocking!

Well, I'm guilty as charged. But let's examine what's behind the criticism, and why I accept it proudly.

Even former Gov. Cecil Andrus said recently that his environmentalist allies should focus on more realistic options for salmon recovery. He said breaching just isn't going to happen, and he's right. But that won't keep national environmental groups and their local mouthpieces from clinging to their most effective fund-raising tool.

After all, breaching has become a mantra for extremists, an article of faith that they dare not abandon. Despite its cost in lost power generation, transportation, recreation and the other purposes that prompted the dams to be built in the first place, breaching has grown in importance to mythical proportions with outsiders and local zealots who place the legacy of enormous wild salmon runs above the very real needs of people.

I expect arguments for breaching to continue as long as Congress and the courts allow the Endangered Species Act to trump common sense and broader public policy interests.

However, breaching advocates now are willing to accomplish their goal by forcibly appropriating all our water for flow augmentation. To his credit, Sen. Mike Crapo arranged talks that so far have kept the issue out of court. But the threat of seeing Idaho's future flushed downstream with the salmon still hangs like a sword of Damocles over our heads.

It's extortion, plain and simple.

At risk is the economic engine that helps make Idaho one of America's most productive agricultural regions, providing work and recreation for hundreds of thousands of our neighbors and sustenance for even more. Also at risk are Idaho's quality of life, state sovereignty and the time-honored water law principle of "first in time, first in right."

The hard work of pursuing a balanced approach to restoring Idaho's valuable anadromous fisheries will continue for years. Even myopic environmentalists eventually must acknowledge the role of such factors as predation and ocean conditions in salmon survival, which suggest dam breaching may not be the cure-all that some claim.

Indeed, record returns for some runs, and the economic benefits they have produced, paint quite a different picture than the often self-fulfilling gloom-and-doom prophesies for river communities that breaching advocates seem to prefer.

Those runs also show that saving the fish is possible without drying up southern Idaho. But make no mistake: There will be no saving southern Idaho without water.

The lion's share of Idaho's $3.9 billion farm and ranch economy would be nonexistent without water stored in the Snake River system and recharged into the aquifer - a single integrated system that we hope someday to manage seamlessly, but which would be hopelessly set off balance by the unreasonable demands of a few.

It typically takes 3 to 4 acre-feet of water to grow an acre of potatoes. Idaho grows more than 400,000 acres of potatoes. That means farmers need 1.2 million to 1.6 million acre-feet of water, or the equivalent of the entire contents of American Falls Reservoir, just for our potato crop. That says nothing of the sugar beets, hay, corn, barley and other crops grown on the Snake River Plain. Then there are livestock production, dairies and the related businesses dependant on those farmers' incomes.

None of that even takes into account the inevitable drop-off in sales of boats, fishing equipment and related gear when reservoirs are turned into mud holes. And speaking of fish, what would happen to the nonanadromous species that inhabit those reservoirs and the wildlife in wetlands and game refuges along the Snake if the system were drained?

Property values? Check with a real estate agent about the difference in value between irrigated and dry acreage in southern Idaho. Then figure out how the drop in property tax revenue will affect rural schools and other public services.

Now calculate what your electric bill would look like if more power had to come from the region's coal- and gas-fired plants. There would be little choice if reservoirs were drawn down for flow augmentation, reducing hydropower generation.

In short, protecting our water is every bit as important to survival of the Idaho we love as protecting the Constitution is to the survival of the republic. Public policy should be grounded in principles that reflect what we hold most dear. In Idaho, what we hold most dear is our water.

Related Pages:
A Warning for Irrigators by J. Robb Brady, Post Register, 10/29/3

Butch Otter R-Idaho, is serving his second term in the U.S. House of Representatives. You can write to him at 1711 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515.
Salmon Recovery Needs Realistic Options
Post Register, November 5, 2003

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation