Idaho suction dredging bill damaging on several levels

IRU Conservation Director Kevin Lewis.

(This Gust Opinion by IRU Conservation Director Kevin Lewis was originally printed in the Feb. 17, 2015 issue of the Idaho Statesman.)

In its latest attempt to nullify federal law and federally protected resources in Idaho, the Legislature has taken aim at the Gem State’s rivers and endangered fish.

The House Resources and Conservation Committee on Feb. 11 voted to pass on to the full Idaho House a bill designed to open protected rivers to suction dredges. The bill amounts to a fantasy hat trick for its sponsor, Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins – an override of the Clean Water Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and Endangered Species Act in one fell swoop.

The problem isn’t just the damage this would cause for Idaho’s rivers and endangered salmon and bull trout. It’s much bigger. According to Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, the bill is patently illegal in multiple ways.

In his five-page, single-spaced legal opinion, Wasden found that portions of the bill conflicted with all three aforementioned federal environmental laws, as well as with several state provisions protecting certain rivers and streams.

With the Legislature costing taxpayers $30,000 per day during the session, consideration of this poorly written and short-sighted bill is an incredible waste of taxpayer money. Moreover, if passed into law, it would only lead to more litigation and further expense to Idaho taxpayers.

One of the bill’s sections would allow full-time dredgers taking rights to anadromous fish eggs “similar to the fishermen and wind-turbine farms.”

Just to be clear, all of Idaho’s anadromous fish are protected under the Endangered Species Act and are the beneficiaries of a $13 billion-and-counting federal program to attempt restoring them. The multibillion-dollar salmon and steelhead hatchery programs throughout the Pacific Northwest are an attempt to mitigate for fish killed by Snake and Columbia river dams. Moreover, if there’s a connection between killing our anadromous fish with suction dredges and killing them with wind farms, it’s unclear to us what it could be.

This winter’s legislative wrangling follows a 2012 move by the Environmental Protection Agency, which released its Idaho General Permit for suction dredge operations. A key provision of the permit is that it is not applicable on stream reaches that include federal Wild and Scenic Rivers, State Protected Rivers or critical habitat for endangered species -including salmon, steelhead and bull trout.

Despite claims by dredgers that their mining activity improves river health, there are significant concerns that dredging in critical habitat poses a significant threat to fish listed under the Endangered Species Act and river health in general.

For example, mercury, a powerful neurotoxin, is found deep in the sediment of many rivers and streams throughout Idaho. When disturbed by dredging, mercury can enter the water column and then sift upward through the food chain – ultimately arriving in the tissues of fish, humans and larger predators who feed on fish. Dredging also disturbs sensitive habitat and increases siltation during the time of year when rivers and streams normally run clear.

Idaho is an incredible state blessed with innovative people, staggering natural beauty and abundant natural resources. Yet, the state also faces real financial, social and environmental challenges that must be overcome.

To call this bill and its passage out of committee sophomoric and embarrassing for Idaho is an understatement. The action ignores the opinion of the state’s top attorney, wastes taxpayer money and sets up the potential for further legal challenges should it be passed into law. The bill is a clear distraction from the real work of making Idaho an even better and more attractive place to live and do business.