10/6/2006 Capital Press editorial
Congress must act to prevent water
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
"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
"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.