Led by Sen. Mike Crapo, the Idaho congressional showed solidarity Friday with Sen. Larry Craig when it backed his rider to the Interior spending bill that told officials to implement an operations plan for the federal Snake River dams in Idaho and Wyoming that a federal judge had struck down as illegal.
The letter, urging two Democrats to support the rider because it protected the 2005 Nez Perce water rights agreement, was the delegation’s attempt to show it will stand tough to protect Idaho’s water, a truly bipartisan goal in our state. It also sought to express that Craig’s rider was not an attempt by Craig, Crapo Reps. Bill Sali or Mike Simpson to back a dam plan found illegal under the Endangered Species Act.
Most of all, Idaho's delegation wanted to show that the Nez Perce agreement, with its commitments to flush water downstream to aid salmon migration, its 200 minimum stream flows on salmon spawning streams in the state, its ambitious salmon habitat restoration and conservation programs in Idaho, should be supported by congressmen and congresswomen downstream. Both of these efforts appear difficult.
The most difficult is to convince Oregon or Washington Republicans or Democrats that they should support taking increasing the amount of Idaho water flushed downriver to aid salmon off the table. If U.S. District Judge James Redden throws out the two new biological opinions for the Upper Snake and the lower Snake-Columbia, which are expected to be completed later this month, he has promised to ratchet up the pain for the entire Columbia Basin.
Short of breaching the four lower dams, Redden’s choices are to force federal dam managers to drawdown two or three dams on the Columbia and to take more water from Idaho. Why would a downstream Democrat, the people who are in control of Congress, allow Idaho a pass?
And the only way the rider doesn’t give Idaho a pass is if it requires federal officials to implement an illegal plan.
There is one other explanation about why this letter was sent and worded as it is. Craig was seeking to get Idaho a pass when he was still very powerful and had a chance to persuade some of his colleagues to let the rider through. Crapo could be laying the groundwork for negotiations with Washington Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, to get some recognition that the Nez Perce agreement is a good start for the kind of regional plan that could come together after Redden tosses the latest biological opinions.
“The lack of a conflict between the (Nez Perce agreement) and ongoing efforts to address fish passage issues in the lower Snake and Columbia rivers is demonstrated by the fact that the Nez Perce Tribe supports the (agreement’s) terms while remaining a leading advocate for removing the four dams,” the delegation wrote.
This sentence in the letter only states a fact but it highlights the Washington delegation’s strong opposition to what scientists say is the best to restore Snake River salmon, breaching the four Snake dams. In 2008 if Redden tosses the new salmon plans Idaho and the Nez Perce tribe have at least some case to make that taking more water won’t make much difference for salmon survival while drawing down Oregon and Washington’s reservoirs downstream will. Breaching appears to be far cheaper than both alternatives.
Starting a discussion in Congress now about what a final salmon recovery plan for the region might look like, could be useful for Cantwell, Murray and the salmon advocates who go door-to-door to get them elected in western Washington.