How tough do Idaho’s environmental negotiations get? Two months ago, when salmon advocates threatened to take control of the plumbing for southern Idaho’s gigantic farm-irrigation system, Norm Semanko held them off by taking a couple of wilderness deals hostage.
Semanko wields that
kind of power. As president of the Coalition for Idaho Water, he
represents potato growers, cattle ranchers, dairies, grain growers,
fish farmers, canal companies and food processors that do nearly $3
billion worth of business a year on 3.5 million acres of irrigated
desert along the Snake River system.
groups had taken on the system in late August, announcing plans to
file an Endangered Species Act lawsuit against federal agencies in
60 days. Their intent was to force the managers of 10 dams above
Hells Canyon, and the dams’ reservoirs and irrigation
diversions, to meet their legal obligations to Snake River salmon,
which were listed as endangered in the early 1990s.
has committed to sending 427,000 acre-feet of water downriver to
help juvenile salmon and steelhead swim past the river’s many
dams to reach the ocean. The Bureau of Reclamation leases water
from irrigators to meet that goal. But in the past two years, with
the effects of drought increasing, not enough irrigators were
willing to sell, and no reservoir water has been flushed
Due to a shift in ocean conditions, salmon runs
have actually improved over the last five years, but the
improvement is expected to be short-lived. "Our intent (with a
lawsuit) is to get salmon the water they need in 2004," says Bill
Sedivy, director of Idaho Rivers United.
But when the
groups announced their plans to sue, the water users found a way to
retaliate, by applying pressure to negotiations on wilderness in
the Owyhee region and the Boulder-White Cloud mountains. Semanko
advised the irrigators involved in the wilderness talks to walk
out. "Until that threat (of a salmon lawsuit) is removed, there can
be no mutual exchange of viewpoint," Semanko said in
The hostage-taking worked, at least
temporarily. The salmon groups withdrew their threat for several
weeks, and the opposing sides got together for a long day of salmon
talks in Boise, overseen by Sen. Mike Crapo, R, who has been trying
to hold the middle ground.
But on Nov. 7, three of the
salmon groups — Idaho Rivers United, American Rivers and the
National Wildlife Federation — announced they may go ahead
with the lawsuit anyway. The crisis revealed the differences within
the environmental movement: The Idaho Conservation League —
one of the chief architects of the wilderness deals — dropped
its intent to sue.
Then the Coalition for Idaho Water got
tougher, announcing on Nov. 17 that it will also sue the federal
agencies, in an effort to maintain the water rights. Despite
everything, the wilderness negotiations are still holding together
— so far.
And all the environmental groups agree on
two things: They want a new comprehensive study of the water
system, and they’re keeping up the pressure to breach the
biggest salmon barriers — four dams on the lower Snake River
in Washington (HCN, 12/20/99: Unleashing the Snake).