Water lawsuit chills. Parties agree to 30-day delay - The potential lawsuit could stop all delivery of irrigation water in Southern Idaho in 2004, drying up two million acres of farmland

By PATRICIA R. MCCOY Idaho Staff Writer
Capital Press



The Coalition for Idaho Water and the environmentalists who filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue federal agencies over operation of the 10 Upper Snake River dams will meet for talks.

The yet-unscheduled talks will seek a collaborative, mediated solution to resolve the environmentalists’ concerns over salmon, bull trout and other fish listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, while still providing water for irrigation, recreation and urban use the Coalition seeks to protect.

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, is mediating the talks.

“The first formal meeting is not yet set up,” Crapo said. “Partly that’s due to scheduling among the multiple parties. We’re doing a lot of preliminary work behind the scenes. I’m talking directly with all individuals involved, and each group is working hard to prepare for meaningful discussions.”

“We have some very, very serious issues to discuss,” the senator said. “We’ll need cool heads and thoughtful solutions, but I hope we can create a good, collaborative environment and make progress. The best chance for that is at the table, rather than in a courtroom.”

Crapo intervened after environmentalists and water users began trading potshots over the potential impact to Idaho’s economy of a proposed lawsuit over operation of the Upper Snake River federal projects.

A 60-day notice of intent to sue was sent to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. Its signers wanted steps taken to ensure that the Upper Snake River projects were operated to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

Those plaintiffs were the Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, American Rivers, and the National Wildlife Federation, represented by Advocates for the West, a Boise-based law firm, and EarthJustice.

Notice Reaction

The notice of intent instantly raised the hackles of the Coalition for Idaho Water, an umbrella group including a wide variety of water users, ranging from agricultural and municipal interests to industry and utilities.

The potential lawsuit could stop all delivery of irrigation water in Southern Idaho in 2004, drying up two million acres of farmland. It could also mean the end of kayaking and rafting on Idaho’s rivers after the annual spring runoff ends each June or July, said Norm Semanko, coalition spokesman.

The end result would repeat Klamath Basin on a far larger scale, Semanko said.

“We’re really after some substantive changes,” said Justin Hayes, Idaho Conservation League. “If these discussions lead to those changes, they will clearly be worthwhile.

“We withdrew the 60-day notice for 30 days,” Hayes continued. “We will work with other interested parties and hopefully find a solution addressing our concerns and those of all others. If not, we’ll have to look at other avenues. That could mean cranking up the lawsuit again.”

The lawsuit is still a threat, Semanko agreed.

“The environmentalists withdrew it for only 30 days while we talk,” Semanko said. “If they refile the 60-day notice, there will be another very strong reaction.

“Right now we’re in a cooling-down period, and everyone is holding back to see what will happen,” Semanko said. “The meetings being set up by Sen. Crapo and his staff will be a good opportunity to talk over these issues.”

Breaching the four Lower Snake River dams in Washington, and depriving irrigators or other water users of their water, will not be on the table, Semanko said. There will be no discussion of not compensating people for whatever water they are willing to sell.

“We won’t support those actions despite any attempts to push us into a corner on that,” Semanko said. “Idaho has had a willing seller/willing buyer program going on for five years, to help provide increased flows for salmon. BuRec has money set aside for that purpose every year. If the environmentalists have ideas for improving that program, we’re all ears.

“Some things just have to stay as they are,” Semanko said. “They include the water bank rules ingrained in state law that protect irrigation.”

Pat McCoy is based in Boise, Idaho. Her e-mail address is prm@rmci.net.


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