Water Release is Show ofby Editors
Give Mother Nature credit for the wet spring.
And give farmers and the Bureau of Reclamation credit for giving up some of that water for salmon.
Several years into a drought broken only briefly by spring rains, the bureau and irrigators will free 427,000 acre-feet of scarce water to flush young salmon to the Pacific Ocean. This reflects the flexibility that will be needed for water users, Indian tribes, state and federal agencies and fish advocates to finally move the salmon debate from the federal courts to the bargaining table.
Let's quantify this water release -- and put it in context.
The sheer volume is daunting, dry year or no. The 427,000 acre-feet is more than enough to fill Lucky Peak Reservoir, with another 127,000 acre-feet left over. This water could irrigate more than 100,000 acres of potato fields for a year -- or serve the annual water needs of 427,000 families.
In a historic water-rights settlement with the Nez Perce Indian tribe, completed in March, irrigators said they would try to release 427,000 acre-feet except during severe drought. That means they aren't required to make the water available. A skimpy snowpack left this year's flush in jeopardy.
However, the bureau will release some of its own water, and will lease an additional 200,000 acre-feet from farmers willing to deal. The farmers get $14 per acre-foot. To put those lease payments in perspective, the state this year paid about $300 an acre-foot to purchase water rights in the Bell Rapids area near Hagerman.
Reaching the 427,000 acre-foot goal this summer is significant, for two reasons.
It's a show of good faith at the right time. Water users, tribes, salmon advocates and elected leaders should use the successful Nez Perce deal as a framework for negotiating an agreement to recover wild salmon, an extremely difficult job involving the entire Northwest.
We're realists. This summer -- in the midst of drought -- we are basically shuffling around water to help fish. The Idaho water flush serves this short-term purpose; so does a plan, upheld in a federal appeals court this week, to spill additional water from five federal dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers downstream from Idaho.
But in the long term, the region will have to address a controversial issue many people, including irrigators, would just as soon avoid: breaching portions of the four lower Snake River dams. Removing portions of the dams may give Idaho salmon their best, and possibly only, shot at recovery.
First things first. Idaho's fish need help this year. And difficult negotiations must be grounded in good faith. The water flush may aid both the fish and the process.
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