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Commentaries and editorials

Environmentalists, Water Users Need
to Confer Peacefully over River Flows

by Editors
Idaho State Journal, September 9, 2003

Idaho's environmental lobby and its water users have a chance to tackle a tough problem diplomatically. Unfortunately, the most recent debate over water flows for downstream salmon and steelhead migration is off to a tough start.

And this time, the environmentalists are proving to be most reasonable.

Late last month, Idaho Rivers United, the Idaho Conservation League, American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation notified Interior Secretary Gale Norton they would sue in 60 days unless the feds re-evaluated the operations of several upper Snake River dams, including eastern Idaho's Palisades Dam.

Then, last week, the director of the Idaho Water Users Association, acknowledging the threatened suit, tried to compare the situation with what happened in recent years in the Klamath Basin, when water flows were shut off in order to preserve a threatened sucker fish.

"This would be at least 10 times the size (of the Klamath conflagration) and would affect water delivery, farmers, ranchers, industries, cities, groundwater levels and spring flows, as well as extend value-based economies across southern and eastern Idaho," Norm Semanko wrote in a letter to his association's members.

In other words, "The sky is falling."

Semanko and others who are fit to be tied by this threatened suit would be wise to tone it down a notch. No suit has been filed yet - there's plenty of time to sit down with the environmental groups and work out an amenable solution.

Essentially, the environmental groups are telling water users in Idaho and in the Northwest that they can't enjoy the so-called benefits of the maligned Snake River dams in eastern Washington state and still receive the usual water flows from upstream reservoirs. If the dams are in place, conservationists say, upstream water is needed to help flush salmon downstream.

Granted, the grand environmental scheme here is to eventually force the breaching of the dams on the Lower Snake - their contribution to power production is minimal, as is their use as agricultural impoundments and recreational reservoirs. Without them, science has noted repeatedly, upstream salmon and steelhead runs (and downstream migration) stand a fighting chance over the long haul.

And, as Semanko and others vehemently oppose breaching the dams based largely on arguments having to do with the economy, the overall value of the salmon and steelhead is politically marginalized. That's a mistake, and something that's escaped politicians in and around the Northwest for years.

In all, if you added up the money sportsmen spend in Idaho, whether they pursue salmon on the Clearwater (when runs are sufficient to support a season) or cutthroats on the South Fork, it easily approaches the economic value of many, if not all, the state's agricultural cash crops - even potatoes. Add hunting into the equation, and it's not even close. According to the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, Idaho sportsmen spend $754 million each year. The cash receipts of the state's vaunted potato crop top out at $551 million.

Imagine the value of healthy salmon and steelhead runs year in and year out - not just the occasional great run that happens when ocean conditions are just right and all the stars align.

The solution? Diplomacy. Rather than fall back on doom and gloom statements like those made by Semanko last week, water users ought to invite the environmentalists to the table and work out an agreement that's acceptable to both sides.

Regardless of what either side says, there's middle ground. Environmentalists have proven over the years they are willing to compromise, no matter how shrill they can sometimes come across. Water users could gain a lot of respect by simply taking this issue seriously and working to find a solution before papers are filed with the courts and folks on both sides are forced to spend fortunes on legal counsel.

Environmentalists, Water Users Need to Confer Peacefully over River Flows
Idaho State Journal, September 9, 2003

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