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Threat of Lawsuit Launches Water Battle

by Carol Ryan Dumas, Ag Weekly editor
Ag Weekly, September 20, 2003

BOISE, Idaho -- With both sides claiming the opposition has given up on working together to find resolution, environmentalists and water users are embattled in yet another tussle over Gem State water.

The short of the debate is water for salmon recovery, which the environmental groups charge is not meeting target flows.

The ulterior motive of the threatened lawsuit, however, has to do with breaching four lower Snake River dams, said Norm Semanko, executive director of Idaho Water Users Association and president of Coalition for Idaho Water.

On Aug. 22, Idaho Rivers United and the Idaho Conservation League -- along with the National Wildlife Federation and American Rivers -- notified the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries that unless their demands are met, they will sue these agencies within 60 days claiming they are violating the Endangered Species Act.

"They are trying to pressure us, pressure the state to support dam removal," Semanko said, calling the tactic "eco-extortion."

The lawsuit doesn't mention dam removal but instead threatens to take a devastating amount of Idaho's irrigation water for flow augmentation unless the interested parties can come to a resolution. That resolution, he said, is to join the enviros' ranks for dam removal.

The groups threatening the suit "have always said they wanted to work in concert with mainstream Idaho to seek out solutions in the salmon recovery arena," Semanko said. "But this barefaced attempt to extort concessions or punish the entire state makes a mockery of that claim."

And the timing only adds insult to injury, he said.

"At a time when Idaho is struggling to cope with terrible economic trials, suffering through three years of unrelenting drought, when our eastern Snake River reservoir system has been drained and is now facing its lowest carryover total on record, that is when Idaho Rivers United and the Idaho Conservation League have decided to declare war on the citizens of Idaho," Semanko said.

Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, said Semanko's claims are "totally bogus."

"Our goal is to get a real and credible biological analysis from NOAA Fisheries on the operation of upper Snake projects," he said.

Sedivy contends the biological opinion guiding salmon recovery for the upper Snake is erroneously based on the biological opinion of the lower Snake, which, in May was deemed illegal by the courts.

But along with a revised biological analysis, the threatened lawsuit calls for the Bureau of Reclamation to adhere to flow-augmentation guidelines established in compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

That would force the Bureau to shut down irrigation water deliveries from Idaho reservoirs in 2004 and instead send it downstream for salmon recovery, Semanko said.

Devil in the details

The goal of the recovery plan is to meet target flows of 50,000 to 55,000 cfs during the summer to aid with fish migration, Semanko said.

"There ain't enough water in the whole state to meet that," he said, adding that over the past 80 years -- dams or no dams -- average flow during the summer was 31,000 cfs.

Nonetheless, in order to try to meet the target, 427,000 acre feet of water from the upper Snake has been tagged for flow augmentation. Semanko points out, however, that target flow does not have to be met on a daily basis, it is a seasonal average and doesn't have to be met every year, he said. In addition the 427,000 is not a "firm determination."

If the environmental groups pursue the lawsuit and win, the result would be a disaster to pale the devastation that hit the Klamath Basin in 2001, Semanko said. In that environmental tangle, the Bureau of Reclamation turned off the water to 200,000 acres of farmland and sent it downstream for fish, and the area's economic base lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

"If this eco-extortion strategy is successful, Idaho will have Klamath times ten on our hands," Semanko said, adding that the threatened lawsuit has the potential to effect 2 million acres of farmland in Idaho.

Sedivy's response?

"Norm's crying wolf here," he said. "No one wants to cause hardships to the ag community."

Sedivy contends the Bureau has the ability to rent water from irrigators on a willing buyer-willing seller basis. That would help farmers struggling with the economic impact of drought, he added.

"That's pretty simplistic," Semanko said, adding that it ignores the effect on ag suppliers and the local economy when a farmer stops farming.

Either way, the groups opposing dam breaching have the ability to stop the lawsuit and the draining of the upper Snake River reservoirs, Sedivy said.

"Idaho Rivers United does not think water from Idaho is the long-term solution to the salmon problem, he said, adding that it is only a short-term means to stop the "slide to extinction." The long-term solution is to breach the four lower Snake dams, he said, adding that the measure would have negligible effect on irrigators downstream.

Semanko said Sedivy's "solution" for salmon recovery ignores the fact that those dams were constructed for other purposes -- such as flood control, navigation and power production -- as well as irrigation.

Consensus of sorts

The two do agree on one thing: Salmon recovery through flow augmentation isn't working.

Sedivy said that despite Pres. Bush's recent claim that fish recovery in the Pacific Northwest is a success, "salmon and steelhead recovery plans are not working."

Semanko said, "Flow augmentation is a failed experiment that has been wholly discredited in the scientific community in recent years and these environmental activist groups know that. Still, they make it clear that unless Idaho officially supports breaching of downstream dams, they will sue to force the Federal government to empty Idaho reservoirs of what water there is and send it all downstream as flow augmentation."

The disastrous economic ripple if the Bureau of Reclamation is forced to drain its reservoirs for the failed flow augmentation program would roll through Idaho's entire economy like an economic tidal wave, according to a press release from the Coalition. Besides Idaho's $5 billion agricultural sector, losing reservoir storage water would severely impact critical municipal supplies, recreational and tourist activities on rivers and reservoirs, existing fisheries and wildlife habitat, groundwater levels, even water quality.

"Are these organizations really asking for all the reservoirs to be drained and the water sent out of Idaho?" Semanko asked, adding that their efforts seem counter to their cause of protecting and preserving Idaho's waterways.

Sedivy said he is offended by the press release from the Coalition, "because it's purely inflammatory." He said the threatened lawsuit is meant to push Bureau of Reclamation to fill its obligation. He suggested that the Bureau either doesn't have enough money to rent water usage from irrigators or it isn't aggressively trying.

Calls to the Bureau (and the Idaho Conservation League) this week were not returned.

Semanko, however, takes offense at Sedivy's contention that water users and managers are not doing enough.

"I don't know what the environmentalists have done to help salmon recovery," he said, "we've at least participated."

Carol Ryan Dumas, Ag Weekly editor
Threat of Lawsuit Launches Water Battle
Ag Weekly, September 20, 2003

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