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.

Four pro-salmon 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.

Idaho 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 downriver.

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 September.

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).