The salmon that spawn in the Sawtooth Valley travel farther and higher than any other salmon on earth. Miraculously, they swim 900 miles from the Pacific, fighting the current the entire way to their spawning streams.
At the Idaho Conservation League, we believe all of us share a responsibility to make sure this miracle does not go extinct on our watch. We also believe this kind of stewardship is a common value shared across the Gem State.
In an ideal world, our government agencies work together to follow the law and make sure these fish can safely make it to their spawning grounds to survive. Unfortunately, in the real world, agencies sometimes need a legal nudge.
Earlier this year, the Idaho Conservation League filed a lawsuit asking the Sawtooth National Forest to formally review water use at 23 water diversions in the Sawtooth Valley. The diversions are structures such as headgates and canal intakes on the national forest where water is taken from streams and run into canals and ditches.
Those diversion structures can be the last straw when it comes to spawning salmon. For example, some old, obsolete diversion structures lack proper screens that prevent salmon and other troubled native fish from being sucked into irrigation ditches. Most of the ditches are old and leak so much they end up wasting precious water that both fish and people need.
The diversions deliver water that primarily irrigates homes and pastures. ICL is not trying to force people to stop using this water. Rather, we are trying to make sure that the diversions have minimal negative impact on fish. We are seeking a balance and hope that much of the aging irrigation infrastructure can be brought up to date.
The diversions are on public land and divert water from the upper Salmon River and many of its tributaries. The Endangered Species Act requires the U.S. Forest Service to consult with federal science agencies in these kinds of circumstances. The Forest Service has long recognized that these diversions likely harm salmon and other fish facing extinction. The point is to find reasonable solutions that meet the needs of both people and fish.
It has been more than 25 years since sockeye salmon were listed as endangered, yet the Sawtooth National Forest has barely scratched the surface of these consultations. To be clear, the national forest has completed other projects aimed at helping the fish, but these required consultations remain undone. The lawsuit is aimed at giving these critically endangered fish every chance the law gives them.
ICL is not asking for anything radical. In fact, the nearby Salmon-Challis National Forest has already taken the steps we are asking for. The process resulted in benefits for native fish and did not cause any dramatic loss of irrigation. In fact, irrigators there have a bit more legal breathing room now that this process is complete.
I first met with the forest about ICL’s concerns in October 2014. I recall it well because I brought my 9-month-old daughter on the trip. We went to Redfish Lake, where she dipped her little hands in the cold water. It was important to me to take her there – to be among the Sawtooths and to know why Redfish Lake has that name. She turns 5 next week, and the consultations still have not begun.
The wild fish that make it back to the Sawtooth Valley are some of the strongest fish on earth. Certainly, together we can find a future that keeps that miracle alive.