The South Fork of the Snake River is running at a trickle. In order to save water for next summer's irrigation season and to flush salmon smolts this spring, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is holding back water behind dams that leaves the river flowing at a rate well below the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's recommended winter flow. Although anglers and biologists understand the agency's mandate, they say the action means fish are being stranded in side channels where they freeze or are eaten by bigger fish. Low water, they add, is a threat to the river's already threatened Yellowstone cutthroat trout and the region's bald eagles.
A coalition of eastern Idaho anglers says it has an innovative solution: buying water from farmers.
"We already spend money to create habitat," says John Lent of Trout Unlimited. "Why can't we spend money on the most important thing for fish - water?"
Lent says the proposal is still in the planning stages, but the money could come from conservation organizations, Idaho's budget surplus or the creation of a new fishing license. During wet years, when snow was plentiful and the reservoirs were filled, the irrigators wouldn't receive any money, but when water was short, the irrigators would be compensated for their loss.
Powerful agricultural interests say they are willing to listen.
"It's going to have to make sense economically for irrigators to take a risk, but it's definitely worth talking about," says John Thompson, communication director for Potato Growers of Idaho, which represents 500 farmers.
Even though it could be a tremendously expensive project - this year, for example, it would cost anglers at least $425,000 to keep the river at 1,500 cfs - state officials say it is worth discussing. The alternative is ignoring the problem, which could jeopardize the future of the fish and lead to federal intervention.
Copyright 2001 HCN and Rob Thornberry