Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, No more ignoring the obvious: Idaho sucks itself dry.
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 dam.
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 and Washington.
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 tourists.
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 miles downstream.
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.
In short, it would have no effect. "The whole game is rigged against the environment," says Wendy Wilson, executive director of Idaho Rivers United.
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.
The Environmental 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 water right.
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 concerns.
"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."