Idaho water legislation bill clears Senate committee
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Legislation to end years of litigation involving water rights in heavily populated southwestern Idaho cleared another hurdle on Wednesday.
Lawmakers on the Senate Resources and Environment Committee voted 9-0 to send the bill presented by House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, to the full Senate for a vote.
The bill sponsored by the most powerful member of the House made it through a House committee and then the full House with little trouble earlier this month. But senators peppered Bedke with questions during the hourlong hearing about the complex issue before agreeing to send the bill to the full Senate with a recommendation to pass it.
“I’m glad it went forward,” Bedke said after the meeting. “I think all Idahoans can be reassured that even when it seems like there’s general agreement, we still owe the issue a thorough hearing, and that’s what we had today, and I think our system is better for it.”
The lawsuits involved canal companies, irrigation districts and the state of Idaho. It concerned the storage of water in three Boise River system reservoirs during flood control operations. The agreement between those entities made last summer involves rights to water that refills the reservoirs following flood-control releases.
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).
Many of the questions from the senators involved why the agreement went with 1,000 acre-feet. Senators were satisfied after Bedke and Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman, after some struggle, cleared up questions. Essentially, the 1,000 acre-feet and smaller represent ponds in Boise and surrounding areas that are used for irrigation and aesthetics. The senators were also told that requests for those types of storage still require permits, and that the process allowed for protests from other water users.
Senators were also reassured that the legislation wouldn’t alter Idaho’s existing water law that says “first in time is first in right.” That means water-rights holders with older rights have priority to water when there’s not enough for everybody.
The legislation approved by the committee on Wednesday uses that doctrine and is needed to remove doubt among the participants in the agreement about future water rights.
Should the full Senate approve, it would go to Gov. Brad Little for his approval. Little, as lieutenant governor before being elected governor in November, took part in negotiations leading up to the agreement.
Should the bill become law, the agreement between the canal companies, irrigation districts and the state would go to the Snake River Basin Adjudication Court for its 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. 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 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 water that refilled the reservoirs, but some felt uncomfortable with the system, especially after the significant flood-control releases in early 2017.
The issue nearly led to the Legislature holding a special session last year before the entities involved agreed to wait for the current Legislature to take up the issue.
Under the agreement, the Water Resources Department will still track everything coming down the river and count it against a water right. But now, Boise River system water users will have rights to the water that refills the reservoirs following flood-control releases.
But that’s only if the legislation becomes law and the Snake River Basin Adjudication Court issues decrees for water rights.