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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of Nov 26 - Dec 2, 2003


Water users file suit over salmon flows

"I did find it ironic that this group that whined for two months and screamed bloody murder to keep us out of court beat us to the punch."

BILL SEDIVY, Idaho Rivers United executive director

Express Staff Writer

Taking an offensive tack in the operation of the upper Snake River reservoirs, Idaho water users last week announced their intention to sue the federal government over flows for migrating salmon.

The Coalition for Idaho Water filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the secretaries of Interior and Commerce, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The move in this ongoing chess match is ironic, because environmental groups three months ago withdrew a threat to sue the government over the same issue, although they were seeking opposite results. At that time, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, requested a diverse array of interests sat down in September to attempt to work toward a solution.

"We did not make the decision to fight over Idaho water in the federal courts — the environmentalists did," said water coalition President Norm Semanko. "Now that we have been forced onto that path, we must fight and we must fight aggressively."

The water users filed the warning on Monday, Nov. 10.

Semanko said boosting river flows to benefit downstream fish migrations could dry up 2 million acres of Idaho farmland and devastate Idaho’s economy. For him, it’s not a new battle.

In testimony in 2000 before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, he told top U.S. officials that flow augmentation was a "failed experiment," words that have become an often repeated mantra.

"Idaho water users have participated in this experiment for the past ten years, waiting for proof that flow augmentation using Idaho's precious water would provide some meaningful benefit to the salmon," he told the panel. "We are still waiting."

The coalition and water users met in October while the salmon advocates put off re-filing their notice, thinking more discussions could resolve the issue.

But the environmental coalition has said it can not commit to stay out of court. The Coalition for Idaho Water has responded in kind.

"I did find it ironic that this group that whined for two months and screamed bloody murder to keep us out of court beat us to the punch," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United.

Sedivy said his groups attorneys are reviewing the situation to determine how to proceed next. A decision should be forthcoming within a week or two, he said.

Besides agricultural groups, the Coalition for Idaho Water includes the Idaho Association of Counties, the Association of Idaho Cities, the Port of Lewiston, the Idaho Irrigation Equipment Association and the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, the state’s largest business lobby.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation leased water from the upper Snake River, providing 427,000 acre-feet to increase the river flow and help the migrating fish through the lower Snake River dams. But with the long-running drought, the government-set river flow targets have gone unmet the past three years.

The coalition’s notice said the Bureau of Reclamation has no legal authority to acquire water for enforcing the Endangered Species Act and the Commerce secretary likewise has no power to require the bureau to do so.

The water users contend salmon runs to Idaho are breaking records. But the fish advocates point out that most of the fish are hatchery-raised while the number of wild fish to maintain the runs are dwindling.

For Sedivy, the latest round in the ongoing battle could mean that it’s time to work a little harder toward consensus.

"Now that everybody’s got their foot in court, now might be a good time for us to examine what issues we can talk about, what issues we can resolve, sit down and try to get some work done," he said.



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