Idaho 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 Snake River.
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."
The federal government has 90 days to decide whether to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.