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Idaho's Senators Seek Talks on Dams

by Erik Robinson
The Columbian, June 1, 2009

Idaho potatoes may figure into the debate over breaching federal dams to restore imperiled salmon in the Columbia River basin.

The Obama administration is taking until the end of this month to consider whether to defend a 2008 plan to balance federal dams and imperiled salmon in the Columbia River basin. U.S. District Judge James A. Redden has already expressed doubt that the plan does enough to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

Now, Idaho's two U.S. senators are both calling for a regional dialogue in an effort to forestall a judicial takeover of the river system.

The state's senior senator on Friday even raised the possibility of breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River as an option that should be discussed.

During a speech before the NW Energy Coalition's annual conference in Boise, Idaho, Sen. Mike Crapo said all interest groups should be included in a new collaborative effort -- including environmental groups suing over the government's latest plan to balance federal dams and salmon.

"Does that mean dam breaching must be on the table?" Crapo said, quoted by the Idaho Statesman newspaper. "Yes. But that also means not dam breaching must be on the table."

Crapo's remarks came on the heels of fellow Republican Sen. Jim Risch advocating a similar regional discussion involving states, tribes and interest groups such as recreationists and irrigators.

After Redden ruled the previous federal dam plan illegal, in 2004, federal authorities engaged in lengthy government-to-government negotiations with four Northwest states and sovereign tribes to come up with its latest plan. Idaho's two Republican senators want a much broader discussion involving all parties that could be affected by Redden throwing out the federal dam plan and ordering much tougher measures to protect fish.

The stakes are especially high in Idaho.

The state's farm sector, for example, could be greatly affected by Redden's suggestion that more water should be dedicated to boosting the flow of water carrying juvenile salmon toward the ocean. Redden also urged federal authorities to consider breaching the four dams on the Snake if habitat improvements failed to restore wild salmon.

Collaborative effort

Idaho political leaders may be open to negotiation, especially if the choice boiled down to breaching dams in Eastern Washington or sacrificing water irrigating Idaho's famous potatoes.

"The collaborative approach is much preferred," said Brad Hoaglun, a spokesman for Risch in Boise. "It's much better than a political or judicial decision where there's clear winners or losers. If they can sit down and at least negotiate, that's much preferred to a judge coming along and saying, 'You're out of business.'"

However, a key salmon advocate based in Idaho said the issue is not clear-cut.

Pat Ford, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition, listened carefully to Crapo's speech on Friday. The state stands to benefit if removing the dams restores strong salmon runs to millions of acres of high-quality spawning habitat in central Idaho, he said. At the same time, however, the dams allow inexpensive barging of grain for farms on the upper Snake and in the Palouse.

The coalition, which endorses dam-breaching, viewed Crapo's remarks as a positive measure of openness compared to the outspoken opposition of former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, who retired last year, Ford said.

"The speech is an indicator of change," he said.

Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest River Partners, a Portland-based alliance of farmers, utilities, ports and businesses, said she was disappointed with Crapo's comments. Although federal authorities negotiated only with representatives of state and tribal governments, many interest groups were allowed to review data and provide input.

She credited federal officials who developed the plan for seeking such broad outreach.

"To suggest they were completely left out of the process is just disingenuous," she said. "We think it's time to get behind this plan and get beyond the courtroom shenanigans."

Erik Robinson
Idaho's Senators Seek Talks on Dams
The Columbian, June 1, 2009

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