Control Over Idaho Water – Part 1

Control Over Idaho Water – Part 1


By Karen Schumacher


Much interest in the Lemhi River and its tributaries has been around for some time.  According to the Idaho Water Resource Board (IWRB), the “Lemhi River is one of the cornerstones of Idaho’s Salmon Recovery Effort.”


In 2004, the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) conducted a study, Instream Flow Assessment Big Timber Creek, Idaho, which covered stream flows and future needs for fish habitat protection.  Idaho Fish & Game (IDFG) conducted another study in 2006, Bull Trout Migratory Dynamics and Life History in the Lemhi River Sub-Basin.  This study determined Bull Trout “distribution has been restricted by water withdrawals from tributary streams.”  End result, “Efforts are under way at this time to connect Big Timber Creek perennially to the Lemhi River. Once the project is completed, it is expected that a minimum discharge of 4.5 cfs will continually enter the Lemhi River throughout the year.”  The stage is being set for relinquishing this water from private property to fish.


In 2008, the Idaho Office of Species Conservation (OSC) put forth the Upper Lemhi River – Acquisition proposal.  Conservation easements and simple fee acquisitions were intended to “permanently protect in-stream and riparian habitat, improve river flow in the Lemhi River, and assist in reconnecting tributary streams to the Lemhi River to benefit all life stages of Snake River spring/summer-run Chinook and Snake River steelhead”.  Several ranches were involved in this proposal.  Since that time there has been a growing, and concerted effort to take control over water, even water that flows over private property.  The full proposal can be found here with IDFG, Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Program (USBWP), and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) all being involved.


BPA is part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), sells electrical power to fund itself, and includes Idaho.  Another BPA partner is the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), which was created by Congress as a ” private conservation grant-maker”.  BPA also funds the Columbia Basin Water Transaction Program (CBWT), which was “developed in 2002 to address chronically diminished stream flows in tributaries of the Columbia River.”, and “works through locally based entities to acquire water rights voluntarily from willing landowners”.  In this program, BPA “works in cooperation with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC) and with support from Altria.”, IDWR, and Trout Unlimited.  NPCC authorized western states to “develop a regional power plan and fish and wildlife program”.


IDWR has its own Water Transaction Program (WTP) specific to the Upper Salmon River Basin, for the purpose of “improving flows in streams and rivers”.  Their partners include the BPA, NFWF, NPCC, and OSC.  According to their brochure Idaho is “determined” to reconnect tributaries to recover ESA-listed fish, with the Big Timber Creek being the highest priority, claiming that it is dewatered.  With the Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Program (USRBWP), the IWRB reviews projects to ensure that transactions are developed on high priority stream reaches, without naming the other partners.  However, USRBWP has an extensive list of partners that includes federal and state governments, BPA, Tribes, land trusts, and non-governmental organizations (NGO).


Another organization, Western States Water Council (WSWC), consisting of governor appointed representatives in 18 western states, was created to facilitate cooperation in the conservation, development and management of water resources.  Its “Vision” statement “transcends political and geographic boundaries” with all levels of government prioritizing “the collection, analysis and open sharing of reliable data regarding water availability…and usage”.  In other words, jurisdictional boundaries are irrelevant.  WestFast was created to collaborate with 12 Federal agencies that have water management responsibilities in the West, and coordinate Federal efforts regarding water resources.  WSWC also supports the S. 2156 Secure Water Act which includes “basin-wide coordination that involves all governmental entities”, “grants or…cooperative agreements to assist states and other non-federal entities in carrying out a range of water use efficiency improvement”, and develop a “national groundwater monitoring program…and the establishment of a national water availability and use assessment“, along with other massive data gathering schemes.


However, data collection on water in the Lower and Upper Lemhi River Basin was already conducted for BOR, OSC, and IDWR in the 2006 Mike Basin Model, an integrated water resource management and planning computer model that integrates a GIS with water resource modeling.  The intent of using this model was for improving stream flows for fish.  Both basins were analyzed with the intent to merge both for creating a comprehensive model of the entire Lemhi River Basin.  “The United Nations FAO 56 method for evaluating crop evapotranspiration and computing crop water requirements has been recently incorporated into MIKE BASIN”…and…”could be incorporated into future upgrades of the LRMBM.” (pg 76).  Recommendations include the need for more data collection and analysis, but the model “resulted in the development of skeleton surface water budget model for the Lemhi River and 12 tributary basins”, as well as creating “a water rights inventory for diversions”.  The Mike Basin Model is now known as the Mike Hydro Basin and is “designed for analyzing water sharing issues at international, national or local river basin scale.”


The Western Watershed Project (WWP) is another NGO whose mission is to “protect and restore western watersheds” with the Lemhi River watershed being one focus area.  Partners include the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) whose mission is to “save life on earth” and “is dedicated to promoting sustainable development. Conceived as a practical tool for translating the principles of Agenda 21 into reality”.  CBD is a partner with Advocates for the West that pays millions of dollars for litigation on the behalf of CBD and multiple other NGOs.


As seen by all of this information, there are specific, very well funded organizations, in partnership with state and federal agencies that are targeting water and private land owners who live in not only Lemhi county, but in the rest of Idaho.  But others are involved in the pursuit of protecting fish, their habitat, and conserving water because of either the alleged current, or predicted future, water crisis, which is all tracked.


Conservation easements (CE) are part of this plan.  In 2015, the Lemhi Regional Land Trust (LRLT), in partnership with the BPA and OSC, bought a 4,682 acre CE to “permanently protect nearly 10 miles of in-stream and riparian habitat” near Leadore.  BPA provided the funding for this CE, with the LRLT holding the easement.  This CE was also intended to “partially mitigate the impacts to salmon and steelhead from the construction, inundation and continued operation of federal hydroelectric dams” in which BPA participates.  The objective was partly for improving salmonid habitat.  This land was part of Leadore Land Partners, a limited partnership created in 2000 based in Missoula, Montana, and is owned by Karl & Donna Tyler.  According to this document the Tylers were paid $7,300,000, and $680,000 for “stewardship funding”.  Idaho also contributed $3.5 million of your tax dollars towards this CE.  A Riparian Habitat Management Plan  for this area was finalized in 2016.  As noted by NPCC, this CE was just one of several being pursued on four ranches beginning in 2008.



Pursuit of conservation easements will ultimately assist in achieving the goal of controlling water in Lemhi county, with your tax dollar providing monetary benefits to land owners who participate in signing over their land.  In part 2 more benefits will be exposed, along with the potential devastation to land owners who choose to not participate.