Water legislation bill backed by House speaker advances

January 18, 2019

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lawmakers have advanced legislation needed to end years of litigation and finalize an agreement involving water rights in heavily populated southwestern Idaho.

The House Resources and Conservation Committee unanimously advanced the bill Thursday after Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke of Oakley spoke in its favor.

“This represents significant closure on a big water issue here in the Treasure Valley,” Bedke told his fellow representatives.

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 agreement between the entities made last summer involves rights to water that refills the reservoirs following releases to control flooding.

The legislation that advanced Thursday makes sure those water rights to that refill 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 with 1 foot of water. That’s about 326,000 gallons.

Bedke said the legislation is needed to remove doubt about future water rights in the new agreement. Should the bill continue to advance and be signed into law by Gov. Brad Little, there are additional steps needed.

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 Corp 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 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.

“Having unsecured storage in the existing Boise River system is not an option,” Mark Zirschky of the Pioneer Irrigation District told the committee.

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 water users will have rights to the water that refills the reservoirs following flood control releases. But that’s only if new legislation becomes law and the Snake River Basin Adjudication Court issues decrees for water rights to the refill.

Many who spoke at the committee meeting talked about extensive meetings and tough negotiations on the complex issue.

“They weren’t fun, but we did get to meet a lot of new people,” said Ron Platt of the Wilder Irrigation District. “I think in the end we’re going to call some of them friends, and some of them acquaintances.”