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Water Groups take Break from Talks

by Kathleen O'Neil
Idaho Falls Post Register, October 14, 2003

Environmental coalition putting salmon-protection suit on hold

A coalition of environmental groups agreed Friday to continue holding off on a lawsuit against federal agencies for failing to protect endangered species of salmon, and are considering continuing talks with water users led by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

Crapo brought together the environmental groups, representatives of the federal agencies, water users, business groups and state legislators Sept. 27 to see whether salmon could be better protected without having the matter go to court.

"This is the first time in the history of the state, that I know of, that these groups have come to the table to talk," Crapo said. "It's certainly not the first time they've clashed."

The coalition had filed Aug. 22 a 60-day notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, saying the operations of 10 dams and reservoirs on the Upper Snake River needed to be re-evaluated to avoid harm to salmon and steelhead. The fish are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The environmental groups took a break from the talks Friday to consider Crapo's suggestion that the coalition continue to delay its lawsuit until after June 2004, when the federal agencies are expected to release a new Biological Opinion for the Lower Snake River. The report describes what is necessary, including stream flows, for the fish to recover, as required under the Endangered Species Act.

A federal court threw out the first Lower Snake River Biological Opinion in May, saying it did not do enough to protect the threatened species. The Biological Opinion for the Upper Snake River is based on the one that was thrown out, which is one of the reasons the groups decided to sue, said Bill Sedivy of Idaho Rivers United.

"They didn't do an analysis of the flows needed to protect salmon and steelhead," Sedivy said. "We want a legitimate scientific biological opinion done to govern operations of the Upper Snake River."

The groups also are negotiating over water use in 2004. Irrigators have been selling water for the past 12 years to supplement river flows for fish. But because of drought, flows for both the fish and irrigators have been low for the past two years.

The coalition is now seeing what the consensus is among the regional groups about taking Crapo's suggestion, Sedivy said. The groups have found the talks productive so far, he said.

"There have been good exchanges, and we've learned from each other," Sedivy said. "My organization believes it would be good if we could resolve this with talking, rather than suing. But we need to have serious talk."

Norm Semanko, who represented water users and the Coalition for Idaho Water Inc. at the talks, said he thought they had made progress.

"It seems like a great chance to craft a win-win situation rather than a win-lose situation that you often seem to get out of a court," Semanko said. This way, they get to address more than just stream flows, he said.

Crapo said the groups had made a good start.

"I'm very pleased with the commitment that has been shown so far by all parties," Crapo said. "The effort to avoid litigation has been sincere. It's probably the most complex set of legal and political issues we have in Idaho, so I don't think we can expect a quick resolution."

Among the groups participating in the talks are the potential plaintiffs in the lawsuit: Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Conservation League, American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation, as well as the potential federal agency defendants.

The Coalition for Idaho Water was joined by Idaho Water Users, the Idaho Farm Bureau, Potato Growers of Idaho, Idaho Grain Producers, Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry and others. Also attending were representatives from Idaho's Governor's and Attorney General's offices and the Nez Perce Tribe.

by Kathleen O'Neil, Energy and environment reporter
Water Groups take Break from Talks
Post Register, October 14, 2003

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