State Politics

Panel will ask Gov. Otter to order special session on Boise water case

Lucky Peak rooster tail water release

The "rooster tail" water release from Lucky Peak Dam on April 23rd, 2017 attracted thousands who came to see water shoot 150 feet into the air out of the dam's outlet side gates.
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The "rooster tail" water release from Lucky Peak Dam on April 23rd, 2017 attracted thousands who came to see water shoot 150 feet into the air out of the dam's outlet side gates.

A panel of Idaho lawmakers voted Wednesday to support calling the Legislature back to Boise to address a settlement in a five-year-long Treasure Valley water dispute.

The co-chairs of the Natural Resources Interim Committee will write Gov. Butch Otter to ask for a special session on a bill meant to help resolve disagreements about how irrigators' water rights are affected by water used for flood control.

Only Otter can call the Legislature back to the Capitol outside of its normal session, which begins in January each year. The governor has not indicated what he'll do. Jon Hanian, his spokesman, said shortly after the committee vote that Otter was in eastern Idaho on Wednesday and no immediate response was available.

Committee members agreed to the measure by unanimous consent rather than a full vote.

Since 2013, Treasure Valley irrigators and state officials have been caught up in a legal clash over how much water users are entitled to during snow-heavy years. Then, reservoirs tend to be full and water must be released in the early spring to maintain enough space for snow runoff and to manage river flows.

The Treasure Valley Water Users Association believes the state is wrongly counting water released for flood-control purposes against how much irrigators can use for irrigation. The state counters that since 1986 — when the Idaho Department of Water Resources first began using this method — irrigators have received 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 sidestep an ending in which the Idaho Supreme Court would be forced to potentially upend how the state allocates its water. The proposed bill and the full settlement attempt to give any water user who loses water to flood control the ability to repair that harm with water that refills a reservoir, without hurting other users in the system.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, who helped arrange the settlement, has previously urged to hold the special session before June 20. That's when the Idaho Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on the water case.

Wednesday, he said the parties in the case are being encouraged to pull their appeals.

“I would urge the parties to show good faith at this point, and make a motion to postpone the June 20 oral arguments,” Bedke said.

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, asked Wednesday why the court couldn't be asked to delay the case, and give lawmakers more time to understand and act on the issue.

"We have the issue of 'let's strike while the iron's hot,' " said attorney Al Barker, who represents the Boise Project Board of Control. "... There has already been two postponements of the Supreme Court decision, and the parties have made it clear that if we can't get this resolved now, then we don't have an agreement."

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, argued the issue goes beyond just a Treasure Valley matter. Though new water storage projects are uncommon at best across Idaho, the legislation would keep those from harming existing water rights, he said. And, he said, holding the special session would save the state money in other areas by ending the case, despite the cost of bringing lawmakers back to the Statehouse.

"By not having the special session, you keep this issue out there," Moyle said.

Barker and Bedke cast the proposed fix as something that not all parties would have preferred, but that all of them support, including the state.

Gary Spackman is director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources. He told the Statesman Wednesday that he specifically is staying neutral, in part because he works for Otter and the special session is Otter's decision to make.

"I'm not overtly supporting the special session, and I'm not overtly supporting the legislation," Spackman said.

Would the bill have any unexpected effects elsewhere in water law? That's still being examined, Spackman said. "There are questions being asked."

Moyle's motion to support the session passed after a tweak to address concerns by Sen. Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise. Jordan said she felt uncomfortable supporting legislation that hadn't been through a public testimony process yet, and wanted to ensure that Wednesday's vote did not suggest lawmakers on the interim committee already back the bill.

The Associated Press contributed.
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