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Commentaries and editorials

A Warning for Irrigators

by J. Robb Brady
Idaho Falls Post Register, October 29, 2003

Recently, this page questioned the timing of environmental organizations contemplating lawsuits to take water from the upper Snake River's drought-stricken farms to help salmon and steelhead migrate to the Pacific.

Fortunately, those groups have put their suits on hold and are negotiating with Idaho irrigators under the auspices of Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

But irrigators got a warning of sorts themselves. Recently, 118 members of Congress signed a letter to President Bush calling for a salmon-recovery program that includes removal of the lower Snake River dams along with other habitat- and dam-modification measures.

More than that, the letter raised the bar by asking for "harvestable populations" of the salmon - substantially above the standards of the Endangered Species Act.

Yes, that's only a quarter of the membership of the U.S. House of Representatives. But it sends the first congressional signal that salmon recovery has a national constituency. Surveys show the American public decidedly favors restoring endangered species, and that will continue to register with Congress.

The Idaho Water Users Association isn't buying it. The association confidently says it feels entirely insulated from such a suggestion. After all, it has Sen. Larry Craig's word that Congress "will never consider Snake River dam removal."

That view is shared by Idaho's congressional delegation as well as by a White House that has proven to be no friend of salmon.

But what can't be ignored is the reality that the recovery plan - first adopted by Bill Clinton and then embraced by George W. Bush - is not working. A federal judge has ruled the current salmon recovery illegal because it doesn't meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. The Bush administration has been ordered to rewrite the plan by June. It will be hard put legally to avoid realistic consideration of dam removal.

The economic case for maintaining the dams - and thereby preserving navigation to the Port of Idaho at Lewiston - is weak. Alternate truck and railway transportation from north central Idaho to the Pacific competes with barge traffic profitably.

The dams contribute about 5 percent of the Northwest's electrical supply - but not when it's most needed. Most of the power comes from high flows during the spring.

The question for eastern Idaho irrigators is why they defend the lower Snake River dams. Salmon recovery depends on a strong current in the lower Snake to move young fish to the Pacific. There are two ways to accomplish that. The best, according to fish biologists across the nation, is to remove the dams. The alternative is to send more water downriver - and one source would be the upper Snake River. Unquestionably, any case for taking upper Snake River water for salmon recovery is weaker - if not rendered moot - if the dams are removed.

No one, especially this newspaper, is hopping aboard any policy that will rob upper Snake farmers of water, especially in the current drought. But the region needs pragmatic leadership that can objectively determine how best to protect eastern Idaho water. The Idaho Water Users Association needs to pull its head out of the sand before Congress imposes a clumsy solution.

by J. Robb Brady Editorial board member A Warning for Irrigators
Post Register, October 29, 2003

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