Letters from the West

Boise River water dispute is over accounting, but portrayed as a taking

The Boise Project Board of Control put out a press release Thursday that says the Idaho Department of Water Resources wants to give its water stored in the Boise River reservoirs to junior water rights holders and “future” junior water rights holders.

And the board — which represents five irrigation districts, including the New York, Boise-Kuna, Wilder, Big Bend and Nampa & Meridian, that control 167,000 acres — says Water Resources and the Idaho Attorney General’s Office now want to count water released for flood control purposes against the senior water rights holder’s allotment even though they don’t use it for irrigation.

“This is an unprecedented attack on individual and business water rights by charging water users for water they simply have not put to any beneficial use,” said the press statement sent from Tim Page, Boise Board of Control manager.

“It also means that in a year when significant flood control releases need to be made there will be less water available to deliver to water users because flood control releases will have exhausted water storage right quantities,” Page said in the release. “ As a result, irrigation delivery entities could be forced to shut off water earlier in the irrigation season even though there may be an ample supply of water available for irrigation purposes.”

In the middle of a drought such talk is clearly aimed at getting people riled up. The only problem is this kind of situation only comes about in a time when we have lots of water, said Matt Weaver, Water Resources deputy director.

“This is an issue in times of plenty, not in times of shortage,” Weaver said. “We are not planning to make any changes in the way we administer water.”

What does all this mean?

It means that the state and the water users are in the middle of settlement talks for one of the few remaining outstanding issues of the water rights adjudication where the state accounts for water rights. The water rights are actually held by the Bureau of Reclamation, which administers the reservoirs for irrigation, flood control, power and recreation.

Flood control is the highest use under policies everyone agreed to 30 years. When we have a lot of snow in the mountains the Bureau lowers the reservoirs to make space for that water. It doesn’t have specific water rights to do that. It simply has recognized it has to refill the reservoirs to it meets its irrigation rights.

The rights themselves are tied to each reservoir and the year it was built. But the Bureau and its partner, the Corps of Engineers, manage the water to maximize flood control and to keep as much water in the highest reservoir the longest so they have more options.

In the rare event when the Bureau has not been able to refill, it has offered irrigators 110,000 acre feet of water it controls in the reservoirs to ensure they have enough. Only once did they fall short, in 1989 when they were 89,000 acre-feet short.

So the issue is the nature of the water right and the accounting. The issue is who should bear the minimal risk that the Bureau won’t be able to meet all of the water right demands when it fills the reservoir a second time.

“This an issue of how to define the nature and the extent of a water right not a taking,” Weaver said.