By SEAN ELLIS
NAMPA, Idaho -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has blinked in its standoff with farmers, recreationists and local government officials over a proposal to significantly reduce recreational opportunities at Lake Lowell.
The agency recently released an amended draft proposal that would allow most recreational opportunities at the reservoir south of Nampa to continue.
The new plan contains some recreational restrictions but not nearly as many as the original draft proposal in 2011 did, said Kathy Adler, a Canyon County commissioner and framer.
"As a whole, it did come out considerably better than what we were anticipating," she said. "There is not a whole lot of change from where it's at now."
Lake Lowell is the heart of the 11,000-acre Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge. The man-made reservoir provides irrigation water to 200,000 acres of farmland in southern Idaho. Three days after irrigation water first began flowing from the reservoir in 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the wildlife refuge.
The USFWS released a draft proposal in 2011 that proposed management changes at the refuge that included significant restrictions on recreational opportunities. The agency argued the measures were necessary to meet the refuge's mission to provide a breeding grounds for migratory birds and other wildlife.
The USFWS listened to public input, said Susan Kain, the refuge's visitor services manager.
For example, instead of closing certain parts of the lake year-round, the new plan suggests targeted closures only when wildlife are actively using an area.
That was one of the suggestions the agency adopted due to public input, she said. "It's a bit of a logistical nightmare ... but that was a great idea we did get from the public."
The latest proposal is a decent compromise, Alder said.
"It allows them to do their job while allowing people to continue to enjoy the recreational activities they have enjoyed for many years," she said.
The proposal contains no mechanism that would result in an adjustment in how water is taken out of the reservoir or put in, which was one of the main concerns for commissioners and farmers, Alder said.
"It's irrigation water first and foremost," said Alder, who has farmed in the area for more than 40 years.
County commissioners sent a pointed letter to the USFWS that stated the reservoir's irrigation mission trumped all others and warned the commission was prepared to go to court if necessary.
Concerned that the initial proposal could affect control of water in Lake Lowell, county commissioners pointed out the right to use the water in the lake is attached to the lands irrigated by it and not the lakebed or riparian zone around the reservoir.
The refuge can control the Snake River islands and the riparian zone, the letter states, "but not the waters of the lake."
People can submit comments on the proposal until May 15 at www.fws.gov/deerflat/refugeplanning.html