You can't have a healthy river without water. But it used to be state policy to choke off the Middle Snake at Milner Dam and divert all of its flow into irrigation canals.
Some life was breathed into the river in
1993, when Idaho Power Co. built a new power plant at Milner. The
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission required the utility to pass
200 cubic feet per second of water through the
Then last summer the flow in the Middle
Snake was increased to 1,700 cfs during June, July and August to
help push endangered salmon past federal hydropower dams in Oregon
It was a drop in the bucket for
salmon, but the first time since 1910 that a substantial flow
passed through Milner Dam. The water was a boon to five species of
endangered snails and other aquatic life such as trout and
sturgeon, and it provided a flow over 212-foot Shoshone Falls for
Endangered snails and salmon may force
the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to continue providing higher flows
through the Middle Snake during the summer months, as they did last
year. If not, competing demands for existing water supplies will
leave little or no water in the river - until it is replenished at
Thousand Springs, the outlet for the Snake Plain Aquifer, some 50
Under Idaho water law, there's
a provision for securing instream flows, but the priority for those
flows is subordinate to all senior water rights. So even if
environmentalists could convince the state Water Resources Board
and Legislature to set a minimum flow of 10,000 cfs in the Middle
Snake - a long shot in today's political climate - the minimum flow
would be subordinate to senior water rights.
short, it would have no effect. "The whole game is rigged against
the environment," says Wendy Wilson, executive director of Idaho
Vince Alberdi, manager of the Twin
Falls Canal Co., suggests that if environmentalists want to
increase flows, they should buy water from farmers on a
willing-seller, willing-buyer basis. Then the purchased water would
carry a senior priority right.
Defense Fund has employed that tactic in California. Unfortunately,
buying one farmer's water in Idaho won't guarantee it will go back
to the river; it could simply flow to the next farmer with a junior
Wilson has pushed state authorities
to take a giant leap toward ecosystem and watershed management on
the Snake. She wants to see an inventory of the health of the river
and a plan for improving it.
But legislators seem
more focused on dealing with conflicts between warring farmers than
attending to the environmental needs of the river. In fact,
legislators in the last session removed the "local public interest"
provision from state water law as it pertains to dividing up water
rights. That means when a judge reviews a water right he can't
adjust it based on local public
"Legislators see the law as a continuum
that protects the status quo," Wilson says. "They're just barring
the door from change."
That's why many
environmental groups have sought federal remedies for higher Snake
River flows and improved water quality. "We're not out of the
running yet," Wilson says. "This is the biggest environmental issue
facing southern Idaho."