All four of Idaho’s congressional delegation have backed a controversial rider to a federal spending bill that they say protects the state’s water rights agreement with the Nez Perce Tribe and helps salmon.
The delegation is supporting language Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig had added to the Interior appropriations bill in July, before he lost power and position on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Craig’s rider ordered federal agencies to implement a 2005 operating plan for federal dams in Idaho and Wyoming - including Lucky Peak - “without further delay.”
This biological opinion was an integral part of the Nez Perce agreement, which resolved the tribe’s claims to all of the water in the Snake River. U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled last year the Bureau of Reclamation’s plan was illegal under the federal Endangered Species Act, in part because it doesn’t do enough to protect salmon and steelhead.
Environmentalists said Craig’s rider was an attempt to have Congress overrule Redden and implement an illegal plan.
Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell - who may become the most powerful voice on salmon in the region with Craig’s troubles and Democratic control of the Senate - asked House and Senate Appropriation subcommitee chairmen to pull Craig’s language from the bill in September.
So now, with Craig’s leadership diminished, the delegation is stepping forward to assert Idaho’s position on salmon.
The lawmakers wrote their own letter Friday to California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Washington Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks, chairs of the appropriation subcommittees in charge of the Interior spending bill, to express their support for Craig’s rider. The letter was signed by Sens. Mike Crapo and Craig and Reps. Mike Simpson and Bill Sali.
Some reports have suggested that with Craig’s power waning Idaho’s voice in the salmon debate will be muted. “That is sheer nonsense,” said Crapo's press secretary, Lindsay Nothern. “This letter demonstrates that all of Idaho delegation are actively involved in protecting Idaho’s water and this water agreement.”
The delegation said Craig’s rider was not intended to back an illegal plan despite its language specifically calling for implementation of the plan Redden tossed.
The dam operation plan is a part of the Nez Perce water rights agreement, negotiated between the state, the federal government and the Nez Perce Tribe in 2005. That agreement resolved the tribe’s claims to water rights in the Snake River Basin, and also included commitments to aid salmon recovery.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is reviewing a new, only slightly different biological opinion, submitted this summer by the Bureau of Reclamation. If NMFS decides the plan is not enough to put salmon on the road to recovery, and issues what they call a “jeopardy opinion,” then provisions of the Nez Perce agreement allow any of the parties - especially the state of Idaho or irrigators - to pull out of the agreement, said Bill McDonald, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Pacific Northwest director.
That could endanger the state’s entire 20-year legal review of water rights and throw its water distribution system into chaos.
With Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, the chances of Craig’s rider passing without changes appears unlikely. But the Idaho delegation appears to be opening the door for negotiations by focusing its strongest support on the Nez Perce agreement, not Craig’s rider.
“We would like to work with you to eliminate any concern that (the rider) requires the Secretary to implement a plan that the court has already found illegal,” the delegation wrote.
Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association praised the Idaho lawmakers for stepping up and backing Craig’s position.
“This letter shows that the entire Idaho Congressional delegation continues to understand how important water is to our economy and our way of life ,” Semanko said. “We are pleased to see them reaching out and working cooperatively with both sides of the aisle in Congress to protect Idaho water.”
The congressmen said opponents have not given credit to the habitat restoration measures and provisions that will protect stream flows in salmon spawning streams that are part of the Nez Perce agreement and the biological opinion. The biological opinion increased the amount of water Idaho water users could lease to the federal government to increase flows in the Snake River to aid migration by 60,000 acre-feet, enough water to meet household needs and lawn watering use for more than 60,000 families.
“We wanted to make the point that Idaho is doing its part for salmon,” said Nothern.
Craig's office would not respond because they have a policy against talking to reporters from the Idaho Statesman since news broke of his arrest and guilty plea in a men’s room sex sting.
The Nez Perce agreement does include good measures to help salmon, said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit which led to Redden’s decision nullifying the biological opinion. But the agreement is not a recovery plan, he said.
The delegation said Idaho Rivers United and the other groups that have brought the lawsuit are trying to get Redden to call for even more water than Idaho’s economy can afford so state leaders will back breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River in Washington.
Breaching the dams is the only measure that will ensure Idaho’s salmon thrive, Sedivy said, but until the region is ready to do that more water may be needed.
“From our perspective if Idaho’s delegation had the best interest of Idaho at heart they would be leading the effort to remove the four Lower Snake dams,” Sedivy said. “That would eliminate the need for more water from southern and eastern Idaho and I would work to that end.”
Ironically, Cantwell, who salmon advocates praise for opposing Craig’s rider ran for reelection in 2004 on a platform of protecting the four lower Snake dams from removal. The delegation seemed to address this incongruence in its letter.
“The lack of a conflict between the (Nez Perce agreement) and ongoing efforts to address fish passage issues in the lower Snake and Columbia rivers is demonstrated by the fact that the Nez Perce Tribe supports the (agreement’s) terms while remaining a leading advocate for removing the four dams,” the delegation wrote.
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