Imagine irrigators and environmentalists, fishing groups and state agencies, Orofino merchants and Republican officials all lining up behind a compromise plan to save Idaho’s salmon and steelhead.
It’s happening in Idaho. And although the odds are long, officials are hopeful that Idaho’s unprecedented unity on the issue will give the state more of a voice in the costly and politics-ridden process of saving the fast-disappearing fish.
The other voices are loud and strong. There are federal agencies charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act, other federal agencies that run hydropower dams, influential Oregon and Washington, industries with an interest in low power costs, tribes with fishing rights and more.
But the voices are deeply divided.
Idaho’s newfound unity, behind a proposal unveiled by Gov. Phil Batt in February, may allow the small state to raise its voice.
“That has really caught the interest of the region,” said Mike Field, Batt’s appointee to the Northwest Power Planning Council and the Idaho plan’s leading salesman. “That’s what made the feds realize that Idaho is a force that needs to be dealt with.”
Said Batt, “We’re a lot closer to agreeing on a plan than we have been at any time previous.”
Although downstream interests have much at stake in the battle to save the salmon, Idaho’s interests are significant, too.
Idaho once was the largest producer of migrating fish in the entire Columbia basin, said Mitch Sanchotena, executive coordinator of Idaho Steelhead & Salmon Unlimited, a sportfishing group.
“That’s no longer true,” he said. “Idaho has not had a salmon season since 1978.”
Anadromous fish - fish that migrate from inland streams or lakes to live in the ocean, then migrate back to spawn - are a part of Idaho’s heritage that is disappearing.
But that’s not the state’s only interest. With efforts to save the fish focusing on the huge dams that bar their way as they head to the ocean and back, more and more water from upstream has been sought to wash young fish downstream to the ocean.
Idaho has claims on that water, from irrigating vast stretches of arid farmland to filling reservoirs like Dworshak, near Orofino, for summer boating and fishing.
Federal efforts to recover dwindling salmon runs since the early 1980s have focused on scooping up young fish as they swim toward dams, and carrying them downstream on barges. But scientists are divided over whether barging works.
There also have been deep drawdowns of Dworshak Reservoir in recent years - dropping the water level by as much as 80 feet. While that provides some water to help speed young fish downriver, it also drops the reservoir so low that it’s out of reach to boaters.
Idaho’s plan calls for a “spread the risk” strategy for 1996 of putting half of the fish on barges, and leaving the other half in the river to be washed over dams by spilling water. It also calls for limiting use of Dworshak water to the spring, so the reservoir can be full for the summer recreation season.
The plan’s first big test came last week, at a high-level meeting in Portland of a committee including the federal agencies, states and tribes. The group tentatively adopted the “spread the risk” strategy, partly for logistical reasons. This is expected to be a high-water year, and high river flows make it difficult to capture fish for barging.
Idaho forces see the decision as a victory.
Said Batt, “I think most everyone is willing to accept that we should spread the risk. That’s a change in status. And most everyone is willing to admit that we cannot ignore historic uses of water. That’s progress.”
But the National Marine Fisheries Service and the other players on the committee weren’t as receptive to Idaho’s proposal that Dworshak should remain full all summer.
“While it does make a difference if everyone is in agreement on a plan, as is the case in Idaho, we still need to look at the technical merit of it,” said Donna Darm, environmental policy manager for NMFS’ northwest region. “We also still need to consider the views of other salmon managers in the basin.”
Oregon, Washington and lower Columbia River Indian tribes “all expressed concerns about the impact of the Idaho proposal on listed Snake River fall chinook,” Darm said.
Batt said Idaho is willing to negotiate. And Field has floated the idea of a “biological trigger,” some mechanism to judge when the fish really need water from Dworshak to make sure no water is ever drained unnecessarily.
The groups backing the Idaho plan aren’t unanimous about all its details, but they’ve put aside differences to work together.
“It is an interesting group of people,” said Justin Hayes of Idaho Rivers United, a river conservation group. “Not a group you see talking the same talk very frequently.”
“We do have differences about certain items on it, but it is important for us to get something done in ‘96.”
Said Gov. Batt, “We have more uses for our water than we have the capacity to furnish the water….We have to have those competing interests work together.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: The Idaho plan
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