Letters From the West

Lawmakers seek to cut climate, endangered species out of state water plan

A fish screen on a headgate by the Lemhi River that saves salmon and protects ranchers

A fish screen on a headgate by the Lemhi River that saves salmon and protects ranchers.

References to climate variability, minimum streams flows to helped endangered salmon and other measures that grew out of the 2004 Nez Perce Agreement were cut from the Idaho State Water Plan by a panel led by House Resources and Conservation members.

The water plan was written over he last five years by the staff of the Idaho Department of Water Resources and the Idaho Water Resource Board. A series of hearings were held around the state last year and many of the public concerns we written into the final draft, said Water Board chairman Roger Chase of Pocatello.

But the Idaho Legislature can rewrite it if they get it done with 60 days of the opening of the session. That means these proposed changes must be approved by both the House and the Senate by Thursday, March 7.

And Gov. Butch Otter would have to sign it, essentially gutting the plan written the board he appointed and the agency under his command.

Or the plan goes into effect as written March 8. The clock is ticking.

So the House Resources and Conservation has scheduling a print hearing on the proposed changes Friday at 1:30 p.m.

The changes also include removal of references to an Aquifer Storage and Recovery Task, and the values of protecting wetlands, stream-side areas, flood plains and stream channels. It also appears to weaken the case for managed aquifer recharge projects and attempts to strengthen the argument for encouraging incidental recharge projects that would pay farmers and canal companies for the water.

Republican Rep. Ken Andrus of Lava Hot Springs said there are already too many federal agencies managing wetlands and floodplains. He said the plan could become the basis for future legislation.

“I don’t want the state to manage wetlands,” Andrus said. “It could take private property rights.”

The actual impact of the changes is minimal since the plan is not law or even rules. It’s just a plan.

But the plan is used as a way to support appeals for funding for water projects such as new reservoirs, flood control, fish screens and improved water monitoring devices. It also can become important as evidence if the state’s pro-active efforts to protect endangered species in the event of lawsuits, such as the suit filed by sporting groups, environmental groups, the Nez Perce tribe and others to protect Idaho’s salmon and steelhead.

So by cutting out references to “climate variability,” a compromise in the language already because many Idahoans refuse to acknowledge climate change, the editing undercut efforts to get the federal government to help build reservoirs like the proposed Galloway Reservoir on the Weiser River. It comes as this year’s water supply is as uncertain as ever because of a low snowpack, which is expected more years than not according to climate scientists because of global warming.

“They are taking away the Water Resource Department’s ability to plan for climate change,” said Marie Kellner, who works on water issues for the Idaho Conservation League.

And by cutting out references to minimum stream flows, fish screens and water banks used to help farmers and ranchers in the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi basins avoid enforcement under the federal Endangered Species Act, the changes actually become evidence that the state is not serious about protecting the fish, critics say.

“It really puts the state in a weaker position,” Chase said.


Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West