Idaho water legislation headed to governor’s desk

February 5, 2019

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Legislation to end years of litigation and help finalize a settlement agreement involving water rights in heavily populated southwestern Idaho is headed to the governor’s desk following a unanimous Senate vote on Tuesday.

The 35-0 vote sends to Gov. Brad Little the bill that involves water rights in the Boise River system.

“It was an important last piece of getting that settlement completed,” said Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, one of the bill’s sponsors in the Senate. “Water is one of those issues you have to get right in Idaho.”

The lawsuits involved canal companies, irrigation districts and the state of Idaho, and concerned the storage of water in three Boise River system reservoirs during flood control operations. The entities reached an agreement last year, but that agreement only works if the bill becomes law.

Little, as lieutenant governor before being elected governor in November, took part in negotiations leading up to the agreement and is expected to sign the bill into law.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, is a key player in forging the agreement and sponsored the legislation on the House side, where it was approved 67-0 by the House late last month.

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Bedke said after learning the Senate unanimously approved the bill. “I have full confidence that the governor will sign this into law.”

The legislation makes sure rights to water that refills the Boise River system following flood control releases are protected should additional large water storage systems be built. Specifically, the legislation makes sure water rights to the refill that are accounted for in the new agreement are protected should additional water storage systems of 1,000 acre-feet or more be built on the Boise River system. An acre-foot of water is an amount of water that covers one acre (0.4 hectares) with 1 foot (0.3 meters) of water. That’s about 326,000 gallons (1.2 million liters).

Those involved in the agreement say that typically, storage areas of 1,000 acre-feet and less in Boise and surrounding cities are used for ponds in suburban areas and help with irrigation for lawns. The agreement also includes drinking water.

The possibility of larger water storage developments, though, had the potential to use up water rights. So legislation was needed to remove doubt among the participants in reaching an agreement about future water rights.

“It was complicated and it was emotional, and people were dug in,” Bedke said. “But there was enough overlap in their positions, enough commonality, that we could forge a compromise and that’s what we did.”

Should Little sign the bill into law, the agreement between the canal companies, irrigation districts and the state would go to the Snake River Basin Adjudication Court for consideration. If everything goes according to plan, the court would issue decrees for water rights to the storage refill in the reservoirs following flood-control releases.

That was one of the issues in the multiple lawsuits — the release of water from Lucky Peak Reservoir, Arrowrock Reservoir and Anderson Ranch Reservoir for flood control. Combined, they hold about 1.1 million acre-feet.

Lucky Peak is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers primarily for flood control, while the other two are operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation primarily for irrigation. But the federal agencies coordinate efforts on flood control to protect the city of Boise and surrounding areas from flooding by releasing water during heavy snow years to make room in the reservoirs for additional snowmelt.

The Idaho Department of Water Resources counts everything coming down the river against someone’s water rights. But Boise River system water users say their water was being used up in flood-control releases at a time early in the year when they couldn’t use the water.

Water-rights holders have historically still received water from the reservoirs, but some felt uncomfortable with the system, especially after the significant flood-control releases in early 2017.

Under the agreement, the Water Resources Department will still track everything coming down the river and count it against a water right.

Boise River system water users will have rights to the water that refills the reservoirs following flood-control releases, but only if Little signs the legislation into law and the Snake River Basin Adjudication Court issues decrees for water rights to the refill.