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Bill paves the way for water fight settlement

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

BOISE – A bill that paves the way to resolve a long-running court battle over how flood control releases from the Boise River system should be accounted for has been signed into law. 

House Bill 1 will help end a lengthy and costly legal battle between the state and water users in Water District 63, which spans from Boise to Parma in the Treasure Valley of southwestern Idaho.

About 350,000 acres in the region are irrigated by water from the Boise River system’s reservoirs.

It was the first bill introduced in the Idaho Legislature and passed the House and Senate by a combined vote of 102-0.

Gov. Brad Little, a Republican rancher from Emmett, signed the bill into law Feb. 13, surrounded by people from both sides of the issue. 

“Today is a big day for all Idahoans, particularly for those who live in the Treasure Valley and especially for people whose livelihood depends upon water,” Little said. 

The governor and others involved in the agreement credited Rep. Scott Bedke, speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives, for bringing the two sides together and encouraging them to reach an agreement. 

Bedke, a Republican rancher from Oakley, said a lot of hard work was involved in the negotiations and he credited the parties for agreeing on a resolution rather than continuing to fight the issue out in court. 

“It was tough and I don’t want to downplay that,” he said. But, he added, “We’ve come quite a long way. This is the culmination of a lot of hard work and perseverance.”

He called the bill “a landmark piece of legislation” and said it’s a template that shows it’s preferable and possible “to negotiate before we litigate and legislate….”

“Let me emphasize, this was not ordered by a judge but negotiated and agreed to by all of the principals, in writing, and confirmed by the legislature,” Little said. 

The Idaho Department of Water Resources and a group of Treasure Valley water users have fought over the issue of flood control accounting for years.

Water is released from the Boise River reservoir system seven out of 10 years, during winter months, to prevent spring flooding in the state’s most populous area. 

Irrigators, who own the most senior water rights in the valley, say those flood control releases should not count against the rights they have to water stored in the reservoirs because they occur during a time when canals and irrigation ditches aren’t operating and they can’t use the water.

They say that counting those flood control releases against their water rights could result in a catastrohphic situation where farmers and other irrigators run out of water in the middle of summer, long before crops are harvested.

IDWR officials say the releases should count against water rights and claim the way the department accounts for flood control releases actually protects the storage water rights of all water right holders, senior and junior, and ensures the water is used for maximum benefit.

Judge Eric Wildman, presiding judge of the Snake River Basin Adjudication Court, ruled in favor of the state in 2016. Water users appealed that ruling to the Idaho Supreme Court. 

Bedke told Senate committee members during a public hearing on the legislation that the issue is very complex but the bill is simple. 

“It’s a rather simple answer to what ended up being a multiple year conflict here in the Treasure Valley,” he said.

The bill adds a short section to Idaho Code that ensures any new water storage projects do not interfere with existing reservoir storage rights.

As a result of a proposed settlement agreement reached between the state and water users last year, both parties agreed to put the Supreme Court case on hold. It has been stayed until Nov. 30, 2019. 

The bill is just one of several facets of the settlement agreement. If all are met, the case before the state’s highest court will be dismissed. If not, either side could continue with the appeal.

The settlement agreement still has to be approved by the SRBA court. 

The dispute over how flood control releases are accounted for was a major concern of Treasure Valley irrigators, who formed the Treasure Valley Water Users Association as a result of it.

“It’s the biggest issue we’ve dealt with in decades here in this valley,” said TVWUA Executive Director Roger Batt. “Our folks considered it a real threat to their existing senior water storage rights.”

He said the settlement agreement provides irrigators certainty and added, “We think it’s a good piece of legislation. Our entire water user community that is part of this in the Treasure Valley supports House Bill 1.”

Richard Durrant, a farmer and member of the Boise-Kuna Irrigation District board of directors, said that “it’s really important to be able to get closure on this issue and know that we’re going to be protected against any flood control issues.”

During a public hearing in the Senate, 26 people signed up to testify on the bill, all of them in support. Since it will be applicable to everyone in Idaho, every water user stakeholder had an opportunity to weigh in on it, Bedke said.

“Everyone is in agreement with this piece of legislation,” he said. “Everyone up and down the Snake and Boise (river systems) were in the middle of this and are OK with it.”

IDWR Director Gary Spackman also blessed the legislation, calling it a good compromise between the parties.

“I strongly support this bill,” he said. “This legislation is being offered as a settlement to some very difficult legal and factual issues that came before this department.”