State Politics

Boise water fight might bring Idaho lawmakers back to the Capitol this year

Arrowrock Reservoir northeast of Boise on May 26, 2017, as seen from above courtesy of EcoFlight pilot Bruce Gordon.
Arrowrock Reservoir northeast of Boise on May 26, 2017, as seen from above courtesy of EcoFlight pilot Bruce Gordon. doswald@idahostatesman.com

Legislative leaders announced Wednesday Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter might call a special legislative session to address a yearslong water battle that has been building in southwestern Idaho.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill says all stakeholders have reached an agreement regarding flood control releases from reservoirs in the Boise River system.

“I am sorry to have to tell you about the special session, but very grateful for the finalization of an agreement on this important issue,” Hill, R-Rexburg, said in an email sent to state senators.

Since 2013, Treasure Valley irrigators and state officials have been caught up in a lengthy legal clash over how much water users are entitled to during snow-heavy years when reservoirs tend to be full and thus water must be released in the early spring to maintain enough space for snow runoff and manage river flows. It’s a delicate balance in ensuring enough water is sent downstream that leaves enough left over for irrigation, recreation and other uses during the hotter months.

According to the Treasure Valley Water Users Association, the state is wrongly counting water released for flood-control purposes against how much irrigators can use for irrigation. The fear is that these releases begin too early, where fields and canals are still under snow and too wet to be managed, and then leave irrigators without enough water when temperatures heat up.

Meanwhile, the state counters that since 1986 — when the Idaho Department of Water Resources first began using this method — irrigators have always gotten their full amount of water owed to them except for one year.

After years of fighting in court, talks began earlier this year to pursue a settlement that would side-step an ending where the Idaho Supreme Court would be forced to potentially upend decades of how the state allocates its water.

The first step, however, is passing key legislation in a special session, said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who has helped oversee some of the state’s biggest water fights over the years.

The draft legislation, which will first be reviewed by a legislative interim resource committee on June 6, would change state law to state that any new attempts to store water cannot interfere with already existing reservoir storage.

“This will give water users the assurance that in above water years, these flood operations do not inhibit their ability to have a full allotment of water,” Bedke said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Big water years are a good problem to have most of the time. It just speaks to the additional coordination needed to make sure everyone gets their full allotment.”

The legislation on its own isn’t the entire settlement, but it’s a good start to ensuring the agreement can be signed off by all stakeholders, said Roger Batt, executive director of Treasure Valley Water Users Association.

“We applaud the speaker and other legislators in securing this first step,” Batt said. “When you have a settlement approved by a judge, your water right has been decreed. Legislation can be overturned.”

After the June 6 meeting, the goal would be to have a short one-day special session before the state’s highest court hears arguments surrounding the Treasure Valley case on June 20, Bedke said.

Only a governor can call for a special session of the Idaho Legislature. A total of 28 have been called since Idaho became a state in 1890, with the last special session being held in 2015 to address foster care.

Jon Hanian, Otter’s spokesman, confirmed the special session talks are ongoing but said it “would be premature” to comment further.

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