Friday, March 25, 2005

Removing Lower Snake dams will save the salmon

Guest opinion by John Peavey

Guest opinion by John Peavey
John Peavey is a third-generation sheep and cattle rancher. He also served 21 years in the Idaho state Senate, where he was a senior member of the resources committee.

As a rancher and former state senator, I am well acquainted with the various water issues facing the state of Idaho today.

As early as 1976, I introduced S.B. 1400, which called for a moratorium on new water diversions along the Lower Snake River. It got 12 votes at a time when few people understood how severe our water management problems would become.

Earlier this month, I testified before the House Resources and Conservation Committee in support of bills needed to ratify the Nez Perce-Snake River Basin Adjudication (SRBA) agreement. Since our state was short-sighted years ago, I believe this agreement is the best chance we have now for protecting Idaho's agricultural economy.

But at the same time, I urged legislators to begin negotiations to address one of the most critical issues surrounding Idaho's water woes: salmon recovery.

Why is Idaho water being used to defend four dams in Washington state?

The Nez Perce-SRBA agreement calls for over 427,000 acre-feet of water to be drained from the Upper Snake River basin to flush young wild salmon downstream through four dams on the Lower Snake River. Flushing the fish to save the dams has been tried for many years and has failed to restore Idaho's salmon to harvestable, self-sustaining levels. The wild fish are still in serious decline.

It is extremely important to keep this water in Idaho if an economic Armageddon is to be avoided. We have overdeveloped our deserts and over-appropriated our water resources. Hundreds of thousands of acres of productive farmland could easily revert to sagebrush if calls for Idaho water to protect salmon persist. Meanwhile, the 427,000 acre-feet of water could be used to quiet farmer-versus-farmer lawsuits and help recharge the diminished East Snake Plain Aquifer, the source of these legal battles.

As far as Idaho's salmon are concerned, the four Washington state dams are the problem.

Our ranch had a U.S. Forest Service sheep grazing allotment on Marsh Creek near Stanley many years ago. It was a major salmon-spawning stream and is a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. When I was young and was taking care of a band of sheep there in the 1950s and 60s, I saw more salmon than I could count when they returned to spawn in their birthplace streams. Many riffles had five or six large fish. I can remember lying on a grassy, undercut creek bank no more than two feet across, and quietly stroking a giant fish. Back then there were 20 bands of sheep and several cattle allotments in the area, and lots and lots of fish.

But after the four Lower Snake River dams were built, the fish all but disappeared. Today there are no cow allotments and only one band of sheep in the Marsh Creek area, and still, there are precious few fish. Clearly the grazing had nothing to do with the demise of the fish, yet with the building of each successive dam, the numbers of returning salmon has continued to dwindle.

The solution to the salmon problem and our water woes is obvious: take the Lower Snake dams down. If we do this we can save Idaho's salmon, and there will be no need for "flush" water from southern Idaho or Dworshak Reservoir. Take the dams down and we can build Idaho's salmon fishing economy, and save the farming economy of southern Idaho.

Perhaps there will be a need for further discussion with the Nez Perce Tribe over this issue. But it is my understanding that the fish are the tribe's primary interest, and if we remove the dams and see the fish return, we might also be able to save Idaho water now being used to flush salmon to the sea. This would be to everyone's benefit.

But back to my original question: Why should Idaho water be used to defend Washington state dams? Why are Idaho's people—who caused none of the problem—being asked to shoulder the entire burden of bringing the salmon back?

I asked these questions in a large meeting of farmers last year and one of Idaho's leading water experts responded that President Bush would not approve breaching the dams. I was startled by his candor at the time. Perhaps if the issue has become so political, our own leadership should go to Washington, D.C., and remind the powers that be that Idaho is a red state and Washington state is a blue one.

History will not judge us kindly if we lose our farmers and our small towns, ruin the state's economy and lose the salmon, too. But I am afraid that is where we are headed.

Such disasters can be averted, though, if our leaders begin working in earnest to achieve removal of the Lower Snake Dams--a solution that will save our farms, small towns and the fish.

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