Troubled Waters for Craig, Idaho
by Matt Christensen
Sen. Larry Craig may be losing his political clout at a time it is most needed by Idaho water users.
A federal judge is expected to soon rule on a biological opinion regarding endangered salmon rehabilitation, and some say his decision could drain southern Idaho like a wrung-out sponge.
Craig has inserted language into a bill that would direct the Interior Department to sidestep the judge by implementing a plan to manage the Upper Snake River. The judge has said the plan doesn't do enough to protect endangered salmon.
Idaho's congressional delegation is supporting the senator, who lost powerful leadership positions and much of his political clout when he pleaded guilty in August to a charge related to a sex sting operation in a Minneapolis airport bathroom.
However, salmon advocates who oppose Craig's portion of the bill say the senator has lost his political clout. They say a federal judge in Portland, Ore., could step in to take control of Snake River operations.
"I don't know if I'd call him a lame duck," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of environmental group Idaho Rivers United.
"But it's clear his level of power and clout has diminished."
Here's the background:
In 2004, the federal government drafted a biological opinion about how it proposed to manage federal dams in the Columbia River basin. Environmental groups sued to block the management plan, saying the government wasn't doing enough to protect endangered salmon that have trouble passing dams en route to the ocean.
Meanwhile, Idaho and the Nez Perce tribe formed an agreement in which the Bureau of Reclamation can lease up to 427,000 acre feet of water from the state for flow augmentation to help salmon. It also provides an option for an additional 60,000 AF for consumptive natural flow water rights.
One acre foot represents the amount needed to cover an acre of land with one foot of water. Typically, one acre-foot of water is sufficient to meet the demands of two residential homes for one year.
The water would flow down the Snake to help the salmon reach the Pacific. The $193 million settlement agreement, approved by Congress and the Idaho Legislature, provides funds for water-improvement projects on the reservation, a land swap and cash for fish-habitat-improvement projects. It also protects irrigators from lawsuits stemming from the Endangered Species Act.
This spring, a federal appeals court upheld a ruling in the biological opinion case, in which Judge James Redden sided with the environmentalists and told the government to redraw the (federal management) plan. In his earlier ruling, Redden indicated that removing four Lower Snake dams - Lower Granite, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Ice Harbor - could be an option for salmon recovery.
That's great news for salmon advocates, who say those dams are the greatest obstacle to salmon recovery. But it is scary news for some Idaho water users, who say Redden could (instead or additionally) call for increasing amounts of water in the Snake, which would likely come from Idaho.
"This could dry up between 500,000 and 800,000 acres to supply more water," said Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association.
It's also an unnerving thought to Idaho's congressional delegation, which is concerned that Redden's ruling could threaten the Nez Perce Agreement.
Last summer, Craig inserted into an appropriations bill language ordering the Interior Department to implement the government plan "without further delay" without waiting for Redden's ruling on the salmon issue.
Then, on the same day that news of Craig's arrest broke, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., asked federal regulators ruling on the Hells Canyon Dam re-licensing bid to require safe passage for salmon all the way to Nevada.
Shortly after, environmentalists sent letters to Democratic leaders, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, urging removal of Craig's language because it would void Redden's ruling.
Last week, Idaho's delegation rallied for Craig, at least on this issue. They sent their own letter to Feinstein in support of Craig's language, saying the language protected parts of agreements made with the Nez Perce tribe.
"We would like to work with you to eliminate any concerns (Craig's language) requires the Secretary to implement a plan that the court has already found illegal," the delegation wrote.
The issue has expanded the debate over Craig's environmental track record and his effectiveness as a senator following the scandal.
"I don't know that it's affected it in terms of what can be accomplished," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. But, he added, "It certainly has made it more difficult because of the influence that Senator Craig has had."
The delegation said Idaho isn't likely to lose its say in the debate, though.
"You've got all the rest of the delegation that's always been on board," said Lindsay Northern, a spokesman for Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. "Craig sits on the energy committee, which Crapo used to be on. Crapo has always been very involved."
Simpson agreed: "We had one of the most respected members of the senate. But that doesn't mean Crapo can't do these same things."
Redden is expected to review the government's rewritten biological opinion this week. He is expected to rule before spring.
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