Letters from the West

Forest Service groundwater plan draws Western ire

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell describes his proposed groundwater directive as a way to improve the agency’s ability to understand groundwater resources so it can become “a better and more consistent partner to States, tribes” and others.

But 40 western congressmen, including Idaho’s entire Republican delegation, say the proposal will limit access to public lands and interfere with state and private water rights. In short, it’s a federal water grab.

“This is just another attempt by the Forest Service to override state water laws,” said Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch. “The restrictions associated with this proposed directive will restrict Idahoans’ access to public lands and will invite needless litigation that could be avoided if the federal government would get out of the way.”

Or how about Idaho GOP Sen. Mike Crapo’s comment in the recent press release from the delegation?

“This directive is yet another example of federal overreach by the Administration,” he said.

So what’s the evidence the delegation presents in its press release? The policy directive recognizes water connectivity. “Manage surface water and groundwater resources as hydraulically interconnected, and consider them interconnected in all planning and evaluation activities, unless it can be demonstrated otherwise using site-specific information,” the proposed directive said.

I don’t know many Idaho water users who don’t see Idaho’s water resources as “hydraulically interconnected." But what the congressmen don’t like is the directive would say the Forest Service could “object to state-regulated projects on “adjacent” land that allegedly might harm groundwater.”

So I guess they want the agency to keep its mouth shut when someone files for a water right to do something it considers a threat to the aquifer.

Thursday, Tidwell extended the comment period on the directive — originally scheduled to end Monday — until Sept. 3 so the public has “more time to read the proposal.”

He says in his press release the proposed directive does not specifically authorize or prohibit any uses, and is not an expansion of authority. He says the Forest Service “recognizes and honors the States’ authority in the allocation and appropriation of water.”

He said it would impose no restrictions on private landowners.

“The Forest Service provides drinking water for more than 66 million Americans and impacts watersheds across the country,” Tidwell said. “It is important for the Forest Service to be effective and consistent in its approach to analyzing, evaluating impacts to, and monitoring water resources, including groundwater, on the national forests and grasslands.”

I don’t know enough about the water laws in other states or how they are recognized by the federal government. However, Idaho is in a special category because we have spent the last 27 years legally determining who owns Idaho water rights in the Snake River basin.

The Forest Service’s rights to Idaho water were clearly laid out and except in special cases such as wild and scenic rivers and in Hells Canyon, they had little or no say over water on national forests. Since the challenges they lost before the Idaho Supreme Court were never appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the state court's decisions are the law of the land within the boundaries of Idaho.

Certainly Idaho water lawyer Crapo understands this.

That said, water holds a very special place in the arid West. I have been schooled many times by farmers and irrigation canal managers that “it pays to be paranoid about water.”

I’m not sure a second read is going to make the 40 Western congressman more open to the Forest Service’s seemingly genuine effort to get a better, more consistent handle on how activities on its lands and those of its neighbors affect the groundwater that it was established in the early 20th century to protect.