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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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10/6/2006 Capital Press editorial

Congress must act to prevent water crisis 

In what's being compared to the run-up to the 2001 shutoff of irrigation water in the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon, a federal judge has warned federal agencies managing dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers to come up with an operational plan that will help endangered fish.

If they don't, Judge James A. Redden has left open the option that he could require NOAA Fisheries and the Bureau of Reclamation to boost the flow of water from Upper Snake River dams to increase survival of the salmon and steelhead.

The only problem: Such a move could damage or destroy the farms, businesses and towns that rely on that water for irrigation.

According to Redden, fish should take precedence over people. He says that when Congress passed the federal Endangered Species Act, it required agencies "to afford first priority to the declared national policy of saving endangered species." The Supreme Court has echoed that priority in its rulings on ESA cases.

Which is yet another reason the ESA is in serious need of repair. Any law that places the well-being of plants and animals over people is sorely lacking in compassion, if nothing else.

Redden also warns that the federal Bureau of Reclamation and NOAA Fisheries should ignore the required Snake River Basin Adjudication Agreement if they determine the downstream flow it provides is inadequate for the fish.

That agreement was negotiated among the state of Idaho, the Nez Perce Tribe and Snake River Irrigators as a means of guaranteeing water supplies. Redden's complaint is that they didn't put salmon and steelhead at the top of the list when the agreement was signed. The agreement does provide 487,000 acre feet of water for flow augmentation to help the fish, but Redden fears that may not be enough, and he said that the Bureau of Reclamation should bypass that agreement, if need be.

"Federal defendants appear to be more concerned with ensuring that the upper Snake River consultation does not interfere (with) the terms of the SRBA Agreement than ensuring that the (Bureau of Reclamation) projects do not jeopardize ESA-listed salmon and steelhead in the upper Snake River," he wrote.

To his credit, the judge did leave the final biological opinions for the rivers to the federal agencies, but his marching orders sent shivers of concern through Idaho farmers.

"It now appears likely that congressional action may be the only way to protect Idaho from an agricultural economic disaster like that which devastated the Klamath Basin of Oregon when water to farmers was shut off under the Endangered Species Act," the Coalition for Idaho Water, a group of water users, announced.

Also, Idaho's four-man congressional delegation has expressed its "outrage" and promised to "take whatever action is necessary and possible to turn back this explicit threat to Idaho's water and future."

"Redden's decision could lead to the dewatering of millions of acres of irrigated land in the name of salmon recovery, much as an earlier ESA decision did to Oregon's Klamath Basin in 2001," the delegation wrote.

"We have said it before and we will say it again; let there be no mistake: We will protect Idaho's water and the Snake River Basin Agreement at all costs," U.S. Sen. Larry Craig said.

They won't be able to do it alone. This is a case where all Western members of Congress need to pull together to right a serious wrong that threatens their region's economy.


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