Letters From the West

Idaho Water Plan support shows how far state has come

Soon after Republican Rep. Lawerence Denney made it clear that an alternative to the Idaho Water Plan was not going to pass the Idaho Legislature, the Idaho WaterUsers Association weighed in.

Denney, chairman of the House Resources and Conservation Committee, set a hearing on the plan for Thursday, the day before it goes into effect automatically 60 days after the session began. His act meant the plan will go into effect as passed by the Idaho Water Resource Board in 2012.

This map of the Treasure Valley water budget shows the data water experts use to plan water use for the future.

This map of the Treasure Valley water budget shows the data water experts use to plan water use for the future.

 

 

 

The WaterUsers, which includes representatives of the canal companies, irrigation districts, cities and dam owners like Idaho Power Co., wield the power when it comes to water policy in Idaho. The group doesn’t weigh in often when its membership is deeply divided over an issue.

It had stood firm on whether the state would press to change water law to allow farmers to sell their rights to use water to a conservation group or the federal government to dry up farmland to help fish. Surrounding states like Montana and Oregon allow this very free market approach to conservation.

But Idaho farmers have resisted, fearing that entire watersheds could be dried up to keep water in streams for endangered salmon and steelhead, leaving rural economies stunted long into the future. The state plan didn’t go that far, but policy had been for years to develop a rule that may have dried up some fields for fish.

Instead, local ranchers and farmers in the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi river basins have devised a voluntary approach using a water rental pool called a water bank to supply water in the rivers when the fish are there and need it.

And instead of having to commit to drying up land to fill the water bank, the same farmers cooperatively agree to shut off their water alternatively so they all get enough for their mostly hay crop while the salmon get a river to swim and spawn.

When the State Water Board cleared up that one point in 2012, the WaterUsers added their support to the plan that already had strong support from cities, groundwater users, Idaho Power Co. and environmental groups like Idaho Rivers United.

Some of the same fears prompted a small informal group of Idaho House members, water lawyers, farmers and others to edit out references to the minimum stream flow language the WaterUsers’ approved. That died Friday but a hearing on the proposal will take place Thursday along with a vote on it and the original water plan.

So later Friday the WaterUser’s legislative committee met and renewed its support for the original plan.

“Maybe we wouldn’t have written the plan the way they did but we support the process,” said Norm Semanko, Idaho WaterUsers Association executive director.

That process included more than 30 meeting between the Water Resources Board, the Water Resources Department staff and many groups from all different sides said Kevin Lewis of Idaho Rivers United. He and Semanko don’t often agree on much but their comment was remarkably similar.

“We didn’t get all we wanted,” Lewis said. “But we back the process.”

When Idaho Gov. Butch Otter first took office Idaho water users were locked in legal combat over the future of the state. Farmers who irrigated their water from springs that flowed into the Snake River from the Snake River Plain Aquifer were fighting with farmers who pumped water directly out of the aquifer.

Fish companies that depended on the springs were asking Otter and the state to dry up thousands of acres of rich cropland. Today they all sit at a table after several Supreme Court decisions and have developed a comprehensive aquifer management plan that protects water rights, Idaho economy as well as fish and wildlife that also depend on the rivers.

As Otter announced the state water plan in his State of the State Address Jan. 4 he gave it his strong support and hailed the process that had brought so many former adversaries together.

“It will help guide how we use, protect and replenish our water supplies for a more sustainable future,” Otter said.

Water Board Chairman Roger Chase of Pocatello, a former lawmaker himself, said the Legislature’s oversight of the plan is a part of that process.

“It’s their job,” Chase said.

So even if the vote Thursday doesn’t make a difference in the outcome, it already has brought many other people into the process that otherwise would not have participated.

“This document is written so that two years down the road if we see something that needs to be adjusted, we can,” Chase said.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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