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Idaho lawmakers voice treaty concerns

Sean Ellis

Capital Press

Idaho lawmakers are asking the U.S. State Department to respect Idaho's sovereignty over its water rights in the Columbia River Treaty negotiations with Canada.

BOISE — The Idaho Legislature will send a message to the U.S. State Department that outlines Idaho’s position on the Columbia River Treaty review.

The main message of House Joint Memorial 10: “Recognize and protect the value of irrigated agriculture in the United States and promote additional development.”

The treaty was signed by the United States and Canada in 1961 and implemented in 1964. The U.S. State Department and its Canadian counterpart are reviewing the treaty to determine whether it should be modified or terminated.

HJM10 is a clear statement of Idaho’s position on the treaty, said Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, who introduced the legislation.

“The most important thing is our sovereignty over water rights,” she said.

Treaty changes proposed by both parties could aversely affect Idaho water supplies, said Sen. Jim Patrick, a Republican farmer from Twin Falls who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

“It could have some huge effects on Idaho that would be disastrous,” he told fellow lawmakers.

The purpose of the treaty is to increase power generation and reduce the impacts of flooding.

The U.S. review team — which includes representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration — has recommended that “ecosystem-based function” be added as a third main purpose of the treaty.

That proposal has alarmed members of Idaho’s water user community, who say it’s vague and could have a major impact on Pacific Northwest reservoirs.

“We’re not sure what ecosystem-based function is but we do know that it would fundamentally alter, potentially, the way the system is operated,” said Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association. “The treaty shouldn’t be expanded with an unknown, undefined purpose overlaying everything.”

Semanko said the U.S. already has established protocols on how to operate reservoirs to protect the environment. For example, he said, augmented water flows help endangered salmon.

“We are very concerned about that (proposal),” he said. “We don’t think ecosystem-based function should be raised above irrigation, navigation and all the other uses of the river.”

Batt, a former farmer, said the U.S. has spent billions of dollars on ecosystem restoration in the Columbia Basin.

“The term is extremely vague and it’s left to broad interpretation,” she said. “We don’t feel that we need to be making this part of the treaty.”

The Canadian negotiating group has recommended that all U.S. storage projects in the Columbia River basin be utilized for system-wide flood control before any Canadian reservoirs are called on.

Canada provides several million acre-feet of flood control space each year under the current treaty.

“Such a change in flood control operations could have a devastating impact on irrigation project reservoir supplies in Idaho,” the joint memorial states.

It also expresses concern the treaty could be changed to a document “that will or potentially could be used as a mechanism to govern all water use in the Pacific Northwest….”



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