Boise River flood: Idaho got it right on storing water in the reservoirs

On May 2, some water user organizations and delivery entities predicted in a Statesman Guest Opinion that there would be “little-to-no storage water” for Boise River irrigators this summer. They said “this year’s weather conditions” and the state of Idaho’s water accounting procedures “are creating a ‘perfect storm’ that will have ‘devastating consequences,’ ” and irrigators’ “storage water allotments” will be “exhausted by the time natural flows in the river were depleted in June or July.”

As it turns out, all of those dire “predictions” were wrong. Let’s look at the facts:

Flood-control releases have ended, the Boise River reservoirs have filled, and the Bureau of Reclamation (“USBR”) confirmed on July 20 that all irrigators received full storage water allotments. There is more than enough water in the reservoirs for the entire irrigation season — for crops, for lawns, for golf courses, and for gardens — and to maintain in-stream flows in the Boise River. Further, since storage water use did not begin until well into the irrigation season, much of the stored water will not be used this year, but rather will be “carried over” for future use.

Is this unusual in flood years? No. As common sense tells us, in flood years there is more than enough water to refill the reservoirs after flood control releases end. And, if operational decisions result in a failure to fully refill the reservoirs, the USBR makes up shortfalls in irrigators’ storage water allotments with water the USBR holds in uncontracted storage space.

The dire predictions from last spring were based on allegations from some water user organizations that the state “developed a theory” of water accounting that “challenges our irrigators’ storage water rights” and “disregards the reservoir operating plan developed over 60 years ago.”

The state’s system of accounting for water storage and use in the Boise River Basin is not new — it was implemented more than 30 years ago and has accounted for water storage and use every year since implementation. The state’s accounting system protects all water rights and accommodates the “reservoir operating plan” by allowing the USBR to use floodwater captured in the reservoirs to provide irrigators with full storage water allotments.

Some water users are advocating for changes in the state’s accounting system that would injure other water users and put the federal government in charge of the use and development of Idaho’s water.

The federal reservoir system is operated for two distinctly different and often-conflicting purposes — flood control under federal law, and storage of water under state law. The state’s accounting system reconciles the conflict and keeps legal control of the water in the state’s hands.

The water user organizations seeking change would give the federal government final authority to decide whether water that could be used or stored in Idaho will be sent downstream to benefit other states or to satisfy federal policies. Contrary to assertions by critics of the method of accounting, the issue is not about water shortage, it is about maintaining state sovereignty over Idaho’s water. We believe control over Idaho’s water should remain in the hands of the state of Idaho.

Gary Spackman is the director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

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