Crapo Talks on Salmon, Water Stalled for Nowby Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, November 9, 2003
Environmental groups want option to sue
Three environmental groups turned down Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo´s offer to seek a collaborative solution to the conflict over the use of Idaho reservoir water for endangered salmon.
Idaho Rivers United, the National Wildlife Federation and American Rivers told Crapo in a letter Friday that they could not give up their option to seek resolution of the issue in federal court.
Since the three groups are a part of a coalition that has already filed a motion seeking to place all of the reservoirs under the jurisdiction of a federal judge, Crapo said their response moves the issue from a collaborative mode to one of litigation.
“As I see it, the plaintiff´s coalition has respectfully declined the proposal I put on the table,” Crapo said. “That basically moves this out of the collaboration arena and into the litigation arena and we will fight to defend Idaho´s water.”
The environmentalist decision comes as state water officials report record-low water levels in Idaho reservoirs.
Crapo said he hoped the parties could reconvene in the future since he believes the only way the issue will ultimately be resolved is through a collaborative process. Norm Semanko, president of the Idaho Water Coalition, which represented farm groups, irrigation companies and other Idaho businesses, said they were still open to future talks, but, like Crapo, he said they were preparing for the legal battle.
“It seems perfectly clear now that the only reason the environmental community decided to play along with the senator´s efforts was to defuse the public uproar against their reckless play for control of Idaho´s water,” Semanko said.
Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, said the three groups made their choice because the water users, the state and federal agencies are all involved in secret talks with the Nez Perce in seeking a settlement in state court on similar issues. A resolution there threatened their legal options later.
“We don´t feel we can negotiate with our hands tied behind our backs,” Sedivy said.
Four groups originally had filed a notice of their intent to sue the federal operators of dams in Idaho seeking additional water to increase flows for salmon.
They withdrew the notice at Crapo´s request to sit down with water users and the agencies to see whether a solution could be found.
One of the groups, the Idaho Conservation League, broke ranks Friday with the other three and said it would not refile the intent to sue. Justin Hayes, ICL program director, told Crapo in a letter that they are committed to the collaborative process.
“Our goal is to ensure the federal government´s legal obligations to salmon be met, that river conditions are healthful for fish, and water users retain access to the water they need,” he said.
The other three environmental groups pledged to limit the amount of water they seek to the 427,000 acre-feet of water approved under existing federal plans and Idaho state law.
That is no solace to Idaho farmers and other water users facing the fourth year of drought in a row. The Idaho Department of Water Resources reported only 385,000 acre-feet of water remained in the system on Oct. 11, a record low. It had grown to 512,000 acre-feet by Oct. 31.
“We may seek less, or none; it is too early to know,” the three groups said in the letter. “We will not seek more than this amount.”
The legal issue was complicated by an existing lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental groups, tribes, commercial fishermen, sporting groups and businesses challenging the federal salmon plan for the federal hydroelectric power dams in Oregon and Washington.
In May, U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland ordered the government to rewrite its salmon plan by next June.
This plan, called a biological opinion, did not include upper Snake River dams. But last month, attorneys for the salmon coalition filed a motion asking Redden to include all of the reservoirs in the plan. Semanko has doubts that they will prevail.
But if they do, it could lead to an injunction that requires Idaho to drain its reservoirs to aid salmon migration. Sedivy said that was never his group´s intention and that it is still not its goal. They have still not decided whether to refile the notice of intent to sue in the original case and hope Crapo will resume the discussions again soon.
“We hope we can get back to talking quickly,” Sedivy said.
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