irrigators gave a sigh of relief when, on Feb. 23, the Idaho
Supreme Court denied the federal government's attempt to secure
water rights for a wildlife refuge composed of 94 islands in the
The federal government had hoped to
reserve a steady flow of water for the Deer Flats National Wildlife
Refuge through the Snake River Basin Adjudication, a 14-year legal
process that will eventually determine who holds water rights on
the over-apportioned Snake (HCN, 2/20/95: Environmentalists and
feds try to save Idaho's rivers).
"It was never
stated, never implied, never contemplated that this river would be
managed for a few islands," says Daren Coon of the Nampa and
Meridian Irrigation District. Coon says irrigators who draw from
the Snake and its tributaries can't afford to let water flow to the
refuge during dry years.
But without adjudicated
rights, Refuge managers say, the islands of Deer Flats could be
left high and dry. Each year, 250 species of birds nest, breed and
rest on the islands, which provide shelter from mainland coyotes
and badgers. When upstream irrigation lowers water levels, the
islands can be accessed by not only predators, but horses, cattle
and ORVs, as well as the invasive saltcedar, or tamarisk, that
crowds out native vegetation.
"If the ruling
stands, we'll be subject to the whims of irrigation," says
Assistant Refuge Manager Todd Fenzl. "This is some of the only good
riparian habitat left in the state."
government has 90 days to decide whether to appeal the decision to
the U.S. Supreme Court.