Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke is holding two bills prompted by a long, bitter water fight between the city of Caldwell and the Pioneer Irrigation District.
Bedke said Tuesday he’s holding the bills until he gets in writing proof the two sides have reached agreement.
“I’m optimistic there will be a memorandum of understanding signed by both parties by the end of the week,” Bedke said.
Mark Hilty, city attorney for Caldwell, said the settlement talks with Pioneer’s attorney Andy Waldera are moving forward, but are complex and have many different parts after six years of litigation.
“Rebuilding enough trust to implement a cooperative relationship going forward will take some time and careful drafting,” Hilty said in a statement. “I am hopeful that settlement will be finalized by the end of the month.”
Waldera did not have a comment.
Resolving the dispute was listed among priorities that must be resolved before lawmakers can adjourn this session, demonstrating the political power of the Idaho Water Users Association and rural water interests who support the bills that would limit municipalities’ power to use eminent domain against irrigation districts and canal companies.
The fight began when Pioneer Irrigation District and its attorney, Scott Campbell, sued Caldwell in 2008 for installing stormwater drains that sent city runoff into the district’s canals without district permission.
In response to the lawsuit, Caldwell filed a condemnation action in 2012 to take over 10,000 of Pioneer’s 34,000 acres, along with its drains, canals and ditches.
That prompted an outcry from the Idaho Water Users Association, which sees the city’s use of eminent domain as a threat to irrigation districts across Idaho.
Meanwhile, Caldwell and Pioneer taxpayers have paid the two entities’ legal costs of more than $5 million.
The two bills have the same language except that one would be retroactive to 2012, before Caldwell’s condemnation lawsuit was filed. Bedke, an Oakley Republican, and irrigation interests say the “clean bill,” without the specific retroactivity, would not prevent condemnation for building and maintaining roads, sewer, utility and even drainage services separate from the irrigation districts’ existing delivery and drainage services.
When Bedke gets the agreement he said he will move the clean bill forward. Then Idaho cities, highway districts, counties and other municipalities will have to decide whether it tips the delicate balance even further toward irrigation interests.
In the past two decades, growth and development in the Treasure Valley have replaced thousands of acres of farmland with houses and yards, parking lots and paved roads. Conflicts arose as cities, counties and highway districts began encroaching into the irrigation districts. The irrigation districts are hybrid governments, somewhere between a municipality and a nonprofit corporation, with the power to levy taxes and fees and established solely to deliver water.
Developers, cities and highway districts needed to build roads to cross canals and create ways to drain the stormwater that flows off their roofs, driveways and roads.
Such conflicts prompted the Idaho Legislature, still dominated by rural lawmakers, to pass a law in 2004 that said no person or government could encroach on any irrigation district facility without its permission. In 2012, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled in Pioneer’s lawsuit, saying the law “clearly gives them the upper hand in dealing with unwarranted encroachments.”
But the law also specifically said it did not affect the condemnation rights of governments like Caldwell. This has provided some balance to negotiations among irrigation districts, developers and local governments, Steve Price, an attorney with the Ada County Highway District, told me last year.
ACHD has told irrigation districts it might resort to condemnation in limited instances to avoid construction delays and hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional costs in cases of disagreements, Price said.
In 2011, ACHD settled a five-year legal battle with Settler’s Irrigation District over ACHD’s piping of stormwater runoff into the district’s canal near the Maple Grove extension. That fight cost ACHD taxpayers $3.8 million and irrigation district customers about $1 million in legal fees.
That’s why they will be reticent to change the current balance already weighed toward the irrigation districts. But this is an election year and lawmakers will want to show they support rural water interests, still very important for many lawmakers – especially in the House.
If the Speaker of the House is pushing a bill, it will pass the House or he won’t be Speaker very long. But whether the bill would pass the Senate, especially quickly, is another story when the cities and others will argue it threatens to slow development.
Final passage won’t be necessary to resolve the Caldwell-Pioneer fight and bring peace to the valley for now. That’s still in the hands of the city and the irrigation district.