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Friday — February 13, 2004


Conservation group cites water flows cooperation

Express Staff Writer

One of Idaho’s leading environmental groups said this week that ongoing cooperative work with southern Idaho farmers to find water to enhance salmon migrations is beginning to bear fruit.

"As of late January, bids for over 86,000 acre feet of water have been submitted to the Boise office of the Bureau of Reclamation by individual irrigators," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. "This water—along with water from the Payette and Boise basins already secured by the bureau—will go a long way toward meeting Idaho’s obligation for salmon flows during 2004."

However, he said there is more work to be done. The Bureau of Reclamation is about 100,000 acre feet short of meeting its flow augmentation goal for the year.

Flow augmentation is one of numerous methods that has been attempted to improve river conditions for migrating steelhead and salmon. Increased releases are planned from Idaho’s reservoirs to help flush young salmon to the ocean.

Since instituting the plan in 2000, however, Idaho has failed to meet flow augmentation goals.

The federal salmon recovery plan calls for 427,000 acre feet of water from southern and eastern Idaho.

Idaho Rivers United, along with other conservation and fishing groups, claims that federal agencies and Idaho leaders have not tried hard enough in past years to secure water for salmon flows and have damaged Idaho salmon in the process.

Although some Northwest salmon stocks are rebounding, some Idaho salmon are not doing as well. Only two female sockeye salmon returned to Central Idaho last summer, and return rates for wild chinook are hovering below self-sustaining levels, Sedivy said.

"Despite our firm belief that 427,000 acre feet is not enough water to keep Idaho salmon alive over the long haul, we think it is important that the feds and state of Idaho keep their promise by providing that amount in full," Sedivy said. "We’ve been trying to help and have had some success, thanks to a few farmers who put us—and the bureau—in touch with others willing to lease water."

According to officials at the Bureau of Reclamation, the cooperative work has almost tripled the amount of water leased from Snake River natural flows, compared to prior years.

"This program has been working well for us the last couple of years, and we believe that there is more water out there for this program," said George Grant, of Falcon Butte Farms. "Having the opportunity to participate in water leases like this simply puts a good tool in out tool box.

"We, and other farmers like us, will be able to use the process from these leases to invest in new economic opportunities in our local communities."

Other farmers have said there are many problems with the voluntary water lease program:

  • Idaho has a provision that puts farmers who lease water for salmon at the end of the line for water delivery the following year.

  • The method has a wide variations in prices, varying from $7 per acre foot to $50 per acre foot.

  • The government has been reluctant or unable to commit to long-term contracts with willing sellers.

"It’s important to start finding solutions that help both farmers and fish, and support a more diverse Idaho economy," Grant said. "In out view, programs like this one can be very good for the redevelopment of rural Idaho communities."


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