Idaho irrigators gird for battle
January 22, 2004
By Dave Wilkins, Idaho Staff Writer
Capital Press Agriculture Newspaper
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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 River
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, including irrigation.
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
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 irrigators.
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 said.
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, Semanko said.
In the Klamath Basin, "The whole community was devastated,"
he said. "It was not just irrigators"
Although a lawsuit still looms, the coalition has already won a
victory of sorts with a federal judges 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,"
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 said.
Environmentalist have hinted that their calls for additional Idaho
water for salmon recovery wouldnt 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 Washington.
"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,
Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Idaho Water Users Association / The Coalition for Idaho Water, Inc.
10th, Suite 530