Letters From the West

Two competing bills aim to jump into Caldwell-Pioneer water fight

Two bills sit before the Senate that grow out of a long fight between the city of Caldwell and the Pioneer Irrigation District.

The House approved a bill Wednesday that would limit the power of municipalities to use eminent domain against irrigation districts and canal companies. The bill includes a provision that would be retroactive to 2012, before Caldwell filed a condemnation lawsuit to take over 10,000 of Pioneer’s 34,000 acres, along with its drains, canals and ditches.

Caldwell and Pioneer are in settlement talks that are nearing completion, people on both sides have said publically. But House Speaker Scott Bedke, with the support of the powerful Idaho WaterUser’s Association, which purportedly represents both sides of the lawsuit, sent the retroactive bill to the floor where it passed easily.

So Friday morning Sen. Curt McKenzie, chairman of the State Affairs Committee, introduced a bill supported by the Idaho Association of Cities, the Idaho Highway Districts and the Idaho Association of Counties, that is an alternative to Bedke’s bill.

The bill uses the standard that has been in place since before statehood for the protection of public health and safety before a municipality can take over an irrigation district, said Ken Harwood, executive director of he Idaho Association of Cities.
He said the cities oppose Bedke’s bill, because “it has a retroactive provision we can’t support.”

The fight began when Pioneer Irrigation District 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 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.

Earlier this year a judge issued a summary judgement in favor of Caldwell. That moved the talks along.

But also it made the Idaho WaterUsers decide they needed to get lawmakers  to remove the potential to use eminent domain the way Caldwell has proposed, said Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho WaterUser’s Association

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.

Semanko said passing of Bedke’s bill without the retroactive provision would help resolve the dispute between Caldwell and Pioneer. But Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas said Friday the idea that the House bill is a compromise bill that everyone agreed with, “couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Nancolas said if the Bedke bill passes he doubts the city would be able to continue settlement talks, it had pushed since 2008.

“It totally swings the issue in favor of Pioneer Irrigation District,” Nancolas said.
Semanko, who also is an attorney associated with Moffatt Thomas, the law firm representing Pioneer, said Pioneer already has dropped its lawsuit against the city. “Ask the city why it hasn’t dropped its eminent domain lawsuit,” he said.

McKenzie’s bill is on the agenda for the Senate Environment and Resources Committee Monday.

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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