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Sending Water Downstream for Fish

by Jennifer Sandmann
Times-News, September 6, 2003

Dry years have hurt Upper Snake irrigators who rented out water for flow augmentation

TWIN FALLS -- Some Idaho water users who rented out their excess water for endangered salmon and steelhead in the past are short on water today.

The debate over Idaho water for fish heated up in the last week with the threat of a lawsuit brought by environmentalists against the federal government over operation of the Snake River system upstream of Milner Dam.

Idaho water users want environmentalists to withdraw their threat. A lawsuit could dry up southern Idaho irrigation and the region's economy, water users say. Environmentalists say such claims are outrageous.

Water is scarce all around after three years of drought, but even more so for irrigators who sent water below Milner Dam for fish in 2000 -- the last full-water year.

Steve Howser, manager of the Aberdeen-Springfield Canal Co. in Aberdeen, said the irrigation company has the fifth-largest storage right on the Upper Snake River system. The company sent water below Milner for fish for about five years.

But then the drought hammered the 2001 irrigation season.

For the past three years, the canal company has temporarily shut off water mid-season to stretch the supply to harvest, Howser said. This year the company rented 40,000 acre feet of water for its use. About half of it is water the company never recovered from 2000. That year the company rented out about 20,000 acre feet of water for flow augmentation -- flushing water downstream to aid fish migration below Hells Canyon Dam.

Any water sent below Milner is subject to a "last-to-fill" clause in Upper Snake River water rules. No matter the seniority of the water right, water sent downstream for flow augmentation won't be replaced unless reservoirs fill the following year. In other words, holders of water rights who rent out water for flow augmentation for fish risk losing those amounts of water in subsequent dry years.

Irrigators were fairly compensated for the water, Howser said. Because of the risk involved, water sent below Milner carries a premium price tag. The company was paid $7 to $8 per acre foot of water.

"We saw a good return over those five years," he said.

Water rented for use above Milner earned only about $2 per acre foot at that time. The price has since increased because of changes to water rental rules intended to minimize risk. An acre foot is enough water to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.

The canal company decided it was better to participate in flow augmentation voluntarily than to one day be forced to give up water, Howser said. While the money earned during the good water years has helped pay for the past three short years, if there's another dry year that won't be the case.

But factor in the financial loss from poor crop yields, and there already have been losses, he said.

About 232,000 acre feet of mitigation water came from federal reservoirs on the Snake River above Milner Dam annually between 1993 and 2000. The federal reservoirs can hold 4.1 million acre feet of water. With additional water from Dworshak Dam on the Clearwater River in north Idaho, the Bureau of Reclamation supplied more than 1.5 million acre feet of water from Idaho. The water came from willing sellers such as the Aberdeen irrigators.

The Twin Falls Canal Co. doesn't have a large storage right and mostly relies on natural spring flows at American Falls, said Chuck Coiner, a board member with the local canal company. Because of those circumstances, the company did not rent out water for flow augmentation.

The Coalition for Idaho Water is adamant that flow augmentation has not proven effective. The group's assertion is supported by some researchers -- particularly when it comes to spring chinook salmon -- but not by others. Coalition members include the Idaho Dairymen's Association, J.R. Simplot Co. and the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.

Environmentalists filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Bureau of Reclamation and the NOAA Fisheries research agency. The environmental groups are Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Conservation League, American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation. They are represented by the Boise legal group, Advocates for the West.

"We're not saying you have to take water away from farmers," said Laird Lucas, an attorney with Advocates for the West.

The groups are not asking for a specific amount of water, he said. They want the federal agencies responsible for fish recovery and operation of the Upper Snake River system to rewrite their operations plan, which was adopted in 2000 as temporary and is based on another federal plan that was thrown out by a judge in a victory for environmentalists.

The environmentalists say they filed a notice of intent to sue rather than an outright lawsuit to begin with, to give time for a resolution without litigation. The existing plan violates the Endangered Species Act, they say.

Related Sites:
Flow Augmentation on Lower Snake River, 1987-2002 Idaho Department Water Resources

Jennifer Sandmann
Sending Water Downstream for Fish
Times-News, September 6, 2003

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