Idaho irrigators gird for battle
By DAVE WILKINS Idaho Staff Writer
TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Five months ago, the Coalition
for Idaho Water had 15 members. Today it has 45.
Why the rapid growth? A lawsuit filed by
environmental groups in August and the specter of
what happened in the Klamath Basin three years ago
have been big motivating factors.
Thirty new members have joined the coalition since
environmental groups served notice last summer
that they intended to sue the federal government
over the operation of 10 dams on the Upper Snake
The environmental groups, which include Idaho
Rivers United, contend that the dams are being
operated in violation of the Endangered Species
Act. They say that downstream flow targets must be
met for salmon recovery before water can be
diverted from the river for any other purpose,
Similar ESA litigation resulted in the federal
government shutting off irrigation water to
180,000 acres of farmland in the Klamath Basin in
Oregon and Northern California in 2001.
Idaho farmers don’t want the same thing to happen
here. But the threat is real, farmers attending
this week’s annual meeting of the Twin Falls Canal
Co. were reminded.
In fact, the impact would be much greater if
environmental lawsuits prevail in Idaho, coalition
president Norm Semanko told irrigators.
It would take an estimated 3 million acre feet of
water from the Upper Snake River to meet the
downstream flow targets demanded by environmental
That would be enough to dry up as much as 2
million acres of Southern Idaho farmland,
according to the coalition.
“The economic devastation in Southern Idaho would
be five to 10 times greater than what happened in
the Klamath Basin in 2001,” Semanko told
Idaho water users are taking the threat seriously,
but they also feel they are on solid legal footing
and may not be as vulnerable as farmers in the
Klamath Basin were.
In Idaho’s case, the downstream flow targets
aren’t a “solid constraint,” said Semanko, an
attorney who also serves as executive director of
the Idaho Water Users Association.
“This case is different from the Klamath case, and
that will come out if this goes to court,” he
The Idaho Water Coalition was formed 11 years ago,
but had been largely inactive for several years
until last summer. The group represents
agricultural, industrial and commercial water
users, as well as Idaho’s counties and cities.
The group’s broad base is no accident. Threats to
Idaho’s water affect more than just farmers,
In the Klamath Basin, “The whole community was
devastated,” he said. “It was not just
Although a lawsuit still looms, the coalition has
already won a victory of sorts with a federal
judge’s ruling last month not to add Idaho water
to an existing court case involving downstream
federal dams and salmon recovery issues.
“I think that bodes ill for the environmental
groups,” Semanko said.
The ultimate goal of environmentalists isn’t just
to get at Idaho water, but to remove the dams on
the lower Snake River in Washington state, Semanko
Environmentalist have hinted that their calls for
additional Idaho water for salmon recovery
wouldn’t be necessary if the lower Snake River
dams were removed.
But coalition members are skeptical, and Semanko
said Idaho water users have a dog in the fight to
keep the lower Snake River dams intact in
“Those dams are every bit as important to those
people downstream as our dams are to us,” he said.
“If we rip those dams out, what’s next?”
Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho. His
e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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