REGION

Northwest utilities may be scheming to steal Idaho farmers' water rights to save the salmon, but the Bonneville Power Administration is not, a top agency official says.Jack Robertson, BPA deputy administrator, faced a room full of Idaho irrigators Friday and told them unequivocally his agency would not try to condemn their water rights. Bonneville is the power broker for the utilities.

"I'm not here suggesting the condemnation of Idaho water rights, period," Robertson said before the Idaho Water Users Association's annual Water Law and Resource Issues Seminar. "Idaho water, by itself, cannot solve the problem."

Four Salmon Summit committee members at the meeting urged the farmers to work together or face a water war with downriver groups.

The Salmon Summit is a 30-member committee, convened last fall by Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., charged with devising strategies to avert the economic trauma that would result from having five salmon stocks listed as endangered species.

Ed Chaney of Eagle, who represents Idaho sport fishing and conservationists in the Salmon Summit negotiations, asked the water users to refrain from buying into the "Chicken Little" syndrome.

He said the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee has scared Idaho's farmers by threatening to use all of the Upper Snake River reservoir storage for saving the salmon runs. That amounts to 8 million acre-feet of water.

"Their strategy is to scare Idaho water users with the endangered species boogeyman, and it's working," Chaney said.

PNUCC officials have suggested environmentalists are trying to steal farmers' water rights, when in fact, all Idaho Salmon Summit players have vociferously defended their rights, he said.

Chaney suggested that PNUCC officials are trying to splinter Idaho interests to their advantage.

He told farmers they could profit from the process of trying to save the runs by arranging to get the BPA to bankroll investments in water conservation, and selling surplus water to the BPA, Indian tribes or other willing buyers.

But two members of the Committee of Nine, the governing board of Upper Snake River irrigation interests, said they would not endorse either idea.

"We've already saved 800,000 acre-feet of water with sprinklers and laser leveling in the last 10 years," said Chuck Storer of Idaho Falls. "The water isn't wasted. It feeds the Snake Plain Aquifer."

If farmers curtail seepage into the aquifer, then municipal and domestic wells will dry up, they said.

As for selling water, Idaho Falls farmer Dale Rockwood said, "We don't have the water to sell. For $2.50 an acre-foot, it isn't worth it."