Letters from the West

Ignore rhetoric: State won’t dry up Treasure Valley

Irrigation water flows down through a field of mint being farmed by Drew Eggers in April off Black Cat Road south of Meridian.
Irrigation water flows down through a field of mint being farmed by Drew Eggers in April off Black Cat Road south of Meridian. doswald@idahostatesman.com

A piano plays a foreboding tune. The announcer’s voice intones: “Imagine not having enough irrigation water. Crops and lawns would die. Golf courses, parks and athletic fields would wither away.”

The radio ad about Treasure Valley water sounds dire. “This disaster can happen because of an unwarranted attack on our water rights by the state of Idaho,” the announcer says.

Even more scary was an answer to a question from KIVI-TV’s Don Nelson, who asked Nampa-Meridian Irrigation District’s Secretary Treasurer Daren Coon in a news report if the Department of Water Resources could dry up the Treasure Valley by mid-June?

“Most definitely,” Coon replied. “Probably earlier than that.”

So Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman is seeking to dry up the Treasure Valley, the richest, most important economic landscape in Idaho. In the same KIVI report, Republican Sen. Jim Rice called it “definitely a water grab.”

Said Rice: “If it was 100 years ago, he would have been lynched.”

Lynch Gary Spackman?

Why would the man who answers to Idaho Gov. Butch Otter want to dry up the Treasure Valley?

The answer is easy. He doesn’t.

Water in Idaho is a serious topic, and this isn’t the first time people have let hyperbole get the best of them. But what we have here is a legal dispute, not a repeat of Wild West water wars.

These senior water right holders at the irrigation districts are challenging a decision by Spackman that essentially upholds the management of the Boise River and its reservoirs as it has been done over the past 30 years.

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.

Roger Batt, executive director of the newly formed Treasure Valley Water Users Association, didn’t seem comfortable with Coon’s prediction that the state decision could dry up the valley in June when he talked to me. But he stood by his radio ad that Spackman’s recent decision could leave the valley dry early.

I’ve been covering water issues for the past 20 years and watched closely how the federal agencies balance the need to protect our homes from floods with the need to store water for irrigation and other uses. In a flood year, it is tricky trying to balance these two needs closely.

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. That has happened by an average of about 20,000 acre-feet over the past 30 years.

But even those cases didn’t leave anyone short, because the owners of water in Anderson Ranch and Arrowrock Dams, the senior users — the irrigators — 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.

If there is a possible loser in this water dispute, it’s our fish. That’s because the Bureau of Reclamation has water set aside in Lucky Peak to protect winter flows in the Boise River. In an extraordinary year, the bureau could have to give this water to irrigation districts that own Anderson Ranch and Arrowrock water to meet their guarantee.

The too-little-irrigation-water scenario Coon presents would happen only if the entire Treasure Valley were flooded and the federal agencies for some reason opened up the dams and let all the water out. That would be a disaster.

What the Treasure Valley Water Users Association wants is for Otter or the Idaho Legislature to intercede and make Spackman support their position on reservoir-refill water.

No, Sen. Rice isn’t really calling for lynching the quiet, thoughtful, cautious state water-master. Rice and his allies just don’t want to do what irrigation districts and canal companies in Eastern Idaho did: Settle their dispute with Spackman by negotiating.

So far, Otter has said let the courts decide. That’s how these disputes have usually been resolved when people can’t find a middle ground. But the new Treasurer Valley Water Users Association wants the Legislature to get involved. And to get legislators involved, the group needs to gin up public support.

They are doing that by scaring people into thinking the Treasure Valley could dry up in a flood year. I’d be more worried about the flood.

I don’t know who is right, but I’d rather let the Idaho Supreme Court decide the law than have the Idaho Legislature decide the politics.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker