Letters from the West

Snake River water is one issue resolved during Otter’s reign

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter laughs as a microphone is removed from his tie Monday after his annual State of the State to open the 2016 Idaho Legislature at the Idaho States Capitol.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter laughs as a microphone is removed from his tie Monday after his annual State of the State to open the 2016 Idaho Legislature at the Idaho States Capitol. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter was pleased Monday to talk about the settlement between the Surface Water Coalition, which represents senior water users on the Snake River, and groundwater users, whose rights are junior. The settlement makes a water-conservation plan for the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer possible.

It's one of the long-disputed issues Otter identified in his first State of the State address in 2007, and one that has been resolved. Part of the reason was the groundwork laid back in 2007, when Otter put the entire group of water users from Yellowstone National Park all the way to Glenns Ferry in a room at a Burley hotel and forced them to talk to each other.

A lot of court cases, a lot of politics, a couple of droughts and orders for people to shut off their water resulted in the final deal.

“I would encourage others who are at odds over apportioning scarce resources to use this agreement as a template for addressing their own conflicts,” Otter said.

Those other conflicts include senior water-right holders at Treasure Valley irrigation districts challenging a decision by state Water Resources Director Gary Spackman that essentially upholds the existing management of the Boise River and its reservoirs. Also pending: adjudication of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene river systems in North Idaho.

Both are going to be tough and likely await court decisions before resolution.

The other issues Otter brought up in 2007 were a community college system, which he's still working on but has made great progress; math and science education, which has gone up and down since then but got more attention in this address; and roads, which were only partially resolved in 2015.

Otter has led Idaho through the deep recession and now the recovery. He told reporters Monday he was glad to get back to giving a more positive State of the State address. He described his speech over the last few years as a sort of "State of the State apology."

Still, his speech Monday seemed mostly focused on the budget, a decision he made from day one instead of a true State of the State address as past governors delivered.

Idaho is "healthy and strong," especially in its urban areas. But in communities like Council, still struggling to make sense of the shooting of Jack Yantis, or American Falls, where the major employer helped kill the financing for a new fertilizer plant with dozens of high-paying jobs, or Island Park, unable to benefit from the 4 million people who came to Yellowstone this year, they are waiting for their recovery to happen.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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