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For salmon, dammed or undammed makes no difference

Water seminar attendees hear another side of issue

Patricia R. McCoy
Capital Press 11/24/06

BOISE - Environmentalists want dams removed to save salmon, ignoring one fact: The runs are in the same condition on undammed rivers as in those with dams.

Saving anadromous fish runs in the Pacific Northwest requires doing something about harvest, said Gary Loomis, president and founder of Fish First, Woodland, Wash.

Addressing the 23rd annual Water Law and Resource Issues Seminar here, Loomis called for selective harvest.

That would involve catching and sorting salmon, releasing wild and native fish to spawn. Hatchery fish only would be harvested, he said.

Historically, ocean harvest continues until a species is extinct, Loomis said.

"Around 1933, sardines were harvested until that population collapsed. It happened again in the 1970s. Commercial fishing started in on them again in 2002. The targeted sardine harvest off the coast of Washington state, Oregon and California for this year is 118,937 metric tons, an increase of 22,000 metric tons over 2005."

Processing plants at Astoria handle about 20 boatloads a day, dumping about 160,000 pounds of crushed and undersized sardines as they go, he said.

"This doesn't include the by-catch they discard in the ocean, about 40 to 150 fish per net. Most of the by-catch are salmon and bottomfish. Could this be why our jack salmon count has been off for the last couple of years and we have so few returning?" he said. "One processor told me he remarked to a harvester that the sardines are getting smaller, asking the fisherman when he would ease up on these fish. The harvester replied, 'When the last one's in my net.'

"Sardines are one of the main food sources for Pacific Northwest salmon," Loomis said.

Avid fisherman

Loomis, a self-avowed avid fisherman his entire life, founded Fish First to work on declining fish populations in the Lewis River system. The organization started with five men who called themselves Friends of the Lewis.

"As we worked, it became obvious that there were many issues with recovery, and many special interests involved. Being successful required unwavering focus on what's best for the fish," he said.

Loomis was one of the few non-lawyers or water managers addressing the annual seminar, sponsored by the Idaho Water Users Association. Attendees included numerous attorneys specializing in water law, irrigation company managers and state legislators. Most topics revolved around such issues as the debate between groundwater and surface water users in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, litigation swirling around salmon recovery efforts, and similar topics.

A backlog of water rights transfers is swamping the Idaho Department of Water Resources, and the agency simply doesn't have the staff or resources to catch up, said Director Karl Dreher.

"The backlog is especially high in Southern Idaho, where water in most areas is fully appropriated, and where there's often a moratorium on new development," Dreher told the seminar. "The only way to get water is to purchase an existing right and transfer it."

Transfers complex

One thing slowing the process is that transfers are becoming more and more complex. Most involve pieces of multiple water rights, adding to the time involved to complete them. If they're protested, a hearing follows, he said.

"Apply early. Too often we're finding people take care of obtaining all the other permits first. Water transfers are comparatively cheap, but if you're already starting construction and other development but don't get a water right, it becomes much more costly. If your other approvals fail, it's far easier to unwind a water transfer," the director said.

Idaho's Snake River Basin Adjudication is coming to an end, 20 years after it began. As that winds down, Dreher pledged to transfer 11 employees assigned to that project to water administration and transfers to help untangle the backlog.

He also asked for support from the water user industry for increasing the salaries in his department.

"Some engineering positions are 60 percent below market. We have an employee in Eastern Idaho working a second job, painting houses at night, so his wife can stay home with their children. That shouldn't be for someone with his education and experience. We hired a hydrologist fresh out of college at entry level. Six months later he left us for a job in private industry paying him 60 percent more than we could offer," the director said. "We had a bureau chief position open for months before finally filling it with a retiree. He wants to live in Boise and has a subsidy with his retirement. He can afford to take the position."

Dreher has submitted his fiscal 2008 budget request to Gov. Jim Risch. It includes an increase to help him bring at least some department salaries closer to market levels, he said.

Pat McCoy is based in Boise. Her e-mail address is pmccoy@capitalpress.com.

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