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Committee supports special legislative session to address water issue

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

BOISE – Idaho’s Speaker of the House encouraged fellow lawmakers June 6 to react quickly to proposed legislation that could help solve a decade-long fight between the state and Treasure Valley irrigators over how flood control releases should be accounted for.

Rep. Scott Bedke, a Republican rancher from Oakley, is pushing for a special legislative session to vote on a proposed bill that would prepare a path for an agreement between the two parties.

“Strike while the iron is hot,” Bedke said during a meeting of the Natural Resources Interim Committee, which includes senators and representatives. “We’re there, we have an agreement and that is what we ought to do.”

The state’s normal legislative session runs from January through about early April and a special legislative session must be called by the governor.

The committee unanimously agreed to support discussing the concepts included in the draft legislation during a special session and asked the committees co-chairs to send a letter to the governor supporting a special session.

In a statement submitted to Idaho Farm Bureau Federation June 7, Gov. Butch Otter said he is “looking forward to visiting with the Speaker and Pro Tem about the possibility of calling a special session. In the next few days, I will be meeting with them to discuss the reasons for their request and identify the path to achieving a successful outcome, should I concur that a special session is indeed needed.”

The debate over how to account for water released from the Boise River’s reservoir system to prevent flooding has divided southwestern Idaho irrigators and the Idaho Department of Water Resources and has reached the Idaho Supreme Court.

Treasure Valley irrigators say water released in the winter to prevent flooding in the Boise Valley should not be counted against their reservoir storage rights because the releases occur during a time of year when they can’t put it to beneficial use.

The IDWR says the releases should count against those rights and Judge Eric Wildman, presiding judge of the Snake River Basin Adjudication Court, agreed with the state in 2016 

His decision was appealed to the ISC and oral arguments are set to begin June 20.

The parties have an agreement in principle to resolve their dispute but finalizing that agreement would require the legislature to pass a piece of legislation that updates Idaho Code, said Albert Barker, an attorney for the Boise Project Board of Control, which provides water to 167,000 acres of irrigated land.

Every piece of the issue has been argued and fought over for many years and the parties have already made one trip to the ISC, he said.

“For the first time in a decade, everyone is looking in the same direction,” Barker said to lawmakers. “Can you help us cross this final bridge?”

Asked why there is an urgency to pass the legislation, Barker responded, “The parties have made it clear that if they can’t get this resolved now, then we don’t have an agreement.”

If the legislation is passed and the two sides finalize an agreement, then “it makes sense to forgo those (oral) arguments,” before the ISC, said Dan Steenson, who represents irrigators in the dispute.

“This is an issue that is of critical importance to our valley,” Steenson said. “Time is of the essence to get this issue resolved.”

The draft legislation is simple but necessary for both sides to move forward with an agreement, Bedke said. The proposed bill makes it clear that the filling of any future new storage projects will not have priority over existing reservoir storage rights, he said.

“It’s that simple,” he said.

Bedke spoke of how critical it is to solve this issue favorably and reminded meeting participants that the Boise system’s three reservoirs “provide water for the fastest growing area in the fastest growing state in the nation.”

He said irrigators have already spent $1.5 million in legal fees battling the issue and letting it play out before the court would cost them about another $1.5 million.

“Lower legal fees are preferable to higher legal fees, especially when commodity prices are depressed,” Bedke said.

Steenson told meeting participants that the reservoir system is among the principle reasons the valley has thrived and he and others also reminded them the important role that flood control releases play in ensuring the Boise Valley doesn’t suffer catastrophic flooding.

The legislation provides a level of clarity for both parties, Barker said.

“This legislation protects the existing storage and it protects the people of the Treasure Valley,” he said.

Rep. Mike Moyle, a Republican farmer and rancher from Star and the House Majority Leader, pointed out that almost half the state’s population resides in southwestern Idaho, which is a desert and depends on irrigation.

Moyle made the motion that encourages support of a special session to deal with the draft legislation.

“This (issue) affects a lot of the state of Idaho,” he said. “There has been a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into this proposed agreement.”