Letters from the West

Idaho judge rules state had power to decide Boise River issue

Sid Freeman, and his son Wes Freeman, right, fix an irrigation line at a portion of land on their farm near Caldwell.
Sid Freeman, and his son Wes Freeman, right, fix an irrigation line at a portion of land on their farm near Caldwell. doswald@idahostatesman.com

While I was off on vacation, Judge Eric Wildman, presiding judge for the Snake River Basin Adjudication Court, upheld a decision by Idaho Water Resources Director Gary Spackman on how to allocate water in the Boise River reservoirs.

It's complicated as all water law is, but you might remember the column I wrote last December about the scare tactics of the Treasure Valley Water User's Association, one of the parties to this case. They were warning that Spackman's decision was going to dry up the valley and they wanted Idaho politicians to weigh in and overrides it.

Wildman, who is in charge of cleaning up the final issues of the 29-year-old determination of all of the water rights in the Snake River basin, backed Spackman, who said he, not the federal government or any private agreements, allocates water under state law.

" It is without a doubt the director is the appropriate individual to determine how water is to be distributed under the reservoir water rights," Wildman wrote. "After all, it is he who is statutorily vested with a clear duty to distribute water."

The water in question is the water that is used to refill the reservoirs after water is released in the spring for flood control in wet years. So to start, we have to remember it only matters when we have more water than we can store in our reservoirs.

In a flood year, it is tricky trying to balance flooding and fill. If we get a hot spell in the spring, when the reservoirs are nearly full, we can get flooding from rapid snowmelt. If the weather turns cold, we don’t get the spring runoff in time and we might miss filling the reservoir.

The way the state has managed the water over the past 45 years, water users have not been short because the owners of water in Anderson Ranch and Arrowrock Dams are guaranteed first use of Lucky Peak water if their water supply comes up short. It’s only in a dry year, when there isn’t enough water in Lucky Peak to make up all that people need, that farms and other lands dry up early.

But Wildman did not rule totally in the favor of Spackman and the state. He said the state's management of unallocated water in the reservoir implies a water right Spackman's decision does not recognize.

The state argues only a court can determine what is a water right. The water users see this as a partial victory.

"The water users must have more than a vague allowance to store and use the water – they must have a protectable water right,” said Roger Batt, executive director of the Treasure Valley Water Users.

The state is going to ask Wildman to rehear the unallocated water issue. The irrigators are considering appealing Wildman's decision to the Supreme Court.

My advice: Settle. That's how ultimately most water disputes have been resolved over the last 150 years.

The only losers would be the people who thought they might get more water to sell in the future than they already have today.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker