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Idaho irrigators gird for battle
By DAVE WILKINS Idaho Staff Writer

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 system.

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 environmental groups.

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 judge’s 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,” Semanko said.

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 wouldn’t 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, what’s next?”

Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho. His e-mail address is dlwilkin@mindspring.com.

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