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Guest Editorial 
This page was last updated on January 06, 2009 .

Lemhi Miracle Debunked
by: Jon Marvel, 11/26/02

"A new course - Lemhi ranchers taking steps to protect farms - and fish" is, unfortunately, in the puff category of journalism.

The reality in the Lemhi is a little more complex since there are still dozens of tributaries of the Lemhi River which are dewatered every year by irrigation diversions. The majority of those diversions are also unscreened and unmeasured and are entraining and killing listed fish species including salmon, steelhead and bull trout. And to suggest that environmentalists agree with what is happening is incorrect too. The author of this article never called anyone at WWP which has been very active in the legal realm of water diversions in the Salmon River watersheds (which includes the Lemhi River) and just last week won a federal court case in Custer County (next to Lemhi County) which permanently enjoined water use from Otter Creek until a screen is installed and a headgate which allows up and downstream fish passage during times of water diversion is in place.

The irrigators who have agreed to release water are a tiny number of the total irrigators in the valley, and last spring in May the river level at what is know as LR-6 (Lemhi River #6 Diversion) dropped way below the recommended 10 CFS level needed for fish passage for steelhead. Additionally the agreement does not ensure spawning habitat in that reach of the river just upstream fish passage for a period of time.

In my opinion, the proposed dam on Timber Creek will never happen because there are bull trout in Timber Creek and any dam would at most provide ten days to two weeks of fish flow and would wipe out miles of bull trout spawning habitat as well as interrupting and perhaps blocking fish passage up and downstream. Timber Creek itself remains as one of the largest tributaries that is still dewatered every year and which has no screened diversions thereby entraining and killing listed bull trout. Because Timber creek as well as all the other tributaries and the river itself are overappropriated by a factor I estimate as high as 300% of available water, there is no way that a modest leasing program can ensure connecting flows, fish passage, fish spawning habitat, and healthy riparian areas in the Lemhi River watershed.

The reality is that rancher attitudes in the Lemhi Valley continue to hold to the traditional idea of dominion over nature with only a begrudging effort to help fisheries because of fear of the Endangered Species Act.

The Lemhi River is also on Idaho's 303d list because of fecal coliform bacterial contamination caused almost entirely by winter cattle feedlots on the river. The fencing mentioned in the article (which is completely voluntary) is all placed absolutely as close to river as is physically possible ,thereby ensuring that cattle wastes will still affect the water quality in the main river and tributaries. The placement of the fences also prevents recovery of the woody riparian vegetation which has been destroyed over the years by bulldozing, livestock impacts, and channelization of the river and tributaries.

The article also fails to mention the total costs of all the work to date in the Lemhi. The leasing costs are mentioned, and they are extraordinarily high as you can see; but in addition to that cost, all the other steps taken over the years to screen ditches and recover water flows as well as to keep cattle away from the river are not quantified as they should be. The reality is that a few ranchers in this high altitude and agriculturally limited valley are milking the rest of us in an amazingly successful way. If collaboration consists (as it does here) of the rest of use paying huge sums to a small group of vocal pastoralists who have political clout then this is a success.

If success is healthy watersheds with fisheries in full recovery then this is just another failure in the massive attempt across the west to sustain the economically unsustainable agricultural practices of the past.

The direct and far less costly solution is to marketize water rights so they can be bought by private groups and individuals and/or the government and put back in the creeks and rivers. This would be a direct and appropriate solution in keeping with American economic tradition. To continue to coddle a few ranchers with endless leasing payments and below market use of public lands, as if that is solving the problem in the Lemhi valley or anywhere else in the west, is a sign of denial of economic reality. Ranchers are often willing to sell water rights, land or both, and that willingness needs to be part of any solution.