Fishing Dollars Show Need
by Scott Yates
Statistics published recently in several Idaho newspapers that sport fishing generates $438 million in revenue to Idaho may have come as a surprise to some, but for those of us in the angling and conservation com-munities, the facts have long been known.
Take a drive along the Henry’s Fork River or any other popular fishing river or stream in the state and you’ll see business after business geared to the sport of fishing. So too, you’ll see cars and trucks with license plates from across the nation. The last decade has seen strong fishing and outfitting-based operations take off in rural Idaho in places like Mackay, Swan Valley, and Victor. Data collected in 1996 from the Henry’s Fork showed that the total annual value of the wild rainbow trout fishery for a mere 10-mile section is in excess of $5 million dollars.
Now that the benefits of sport fishing to Idaho are becoming more apparent and documented, it is incumbent upon the state’s policy makers to make sure that the engines that generate that economic activity--our rivers--stay well oiled. This means an adequate supply of clean water. In the world of policymaking, that means managing the state’s available water supply to assure that balance is maintained.
The competition for Idaho’s water is well known. Nearly every drop in the southern, central, and eastern parts of the state has been claimed for generations. But as the statistics at-test, Idaho is evolving economically and the use of our water should reflect that.
Does that mean taking water away from Idaho’s agricultural back-ground? No. But in some instances when a specific private landowner agrees to leave water in the stream and irrigate less (often done in light of market dynamics and operational needs), he should have the discretion to do so. It means wiser use of our limited water supplies—including giving agricultural producers new tools to allow them to use their water more efficiently. It also means mak-ing adjustments in the law, where applicable, to allow for more flexible use of the state’s water resources and adopting, as other Western states have done, a market-based private water leasing program that is specifically designed to benefit state fisheries resources, especially on smaller streams.
The Lemhi River in the Upper Salmon River Basin is one example of how innovative approaches can help save a river. The Idaho Legisla-ture in 2001 specifically authorized a local rental committee to facilitate the operation of a water rental pool designed to market natural flow rights--on a willing buyer willing seller basis--for stream flow and fisheries restoration. Most importantly, this legislation allowed the state to establish a minimum stream flow on a river that had been fully appropriated for decades.
The Lemhi River is the only drainage in Idaho where separate legislation has been enacted to ensure that a state-held minimum stream flow water right can be obtained each year to assure that the river continues to experience healthy flows. And while the road to protecting stream flows in the Lemhi has not been without bumps, negotiations from 2002 to 2004 have shown it can work. It can also be done elsewhere, via the Lemhi Model or some other creative approach to meeting landowner and fishery needs.
Perhaps the biggest current re-source issue facing Idaho involves the relationship between ground and surface water users in the middle and upper parts of the Snake River Basin. There are also incredibly important Tribal water issues currently being negotiated as part of the massive Snake River Basin Adjudication. These processes present an opportu-nity--from a natural resource public policy standpoint--to promote flow restoration in the Salmon and Clearwater drainages. But we also have a chance to take a comprehen-sive look at restoring stream flows statewide, an analysis that examines not only the challenges that lie before the state but also the opportunities that exist to make sure that our water policies are managed in a way that provide long-term balance and sustainability.
To a large extent, water has made this state what it is economically. Idaho’s policymakers recognize that this precious resource will continue to drive the state’s economic future, but that future is changing to include thriving, and if nourished, sustainable newer industries like sport fishing. The state’s future water policies should be designed to reflect that change, and provide creative strategies to protect and restore stream flows statewide.
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