Last Friday, Rocky Barker criticized the Treasure Valley Water Users Association’s public outreach efforts on an issue that seriously threatens the future of the Treasure Valley.
He told readers to “ignore” the association’s message and trust that a state agency challenging Treasure Valley storage rights will not deprive the Treasure Valley of its stored water.
He suggested elected officials have no business considering the issue, and we should “let the courts decide.” After reporting only the state’s talking points, he then said: “I don’t know who is right.”
Here are the issues and what’s at stake. The big question has been and continues to be, “Why is the state challenging the validity of our long-standing water rights in the Treasure Valley?”
The Boise River does not supply enough water to irrigate the Treasure Valley without the water stored in Anderson Ranch, Arrowrock and Lucky Peak Reservoirs during the winter and spring. By mid-summer, storage is often the primary source of water for the Valley. When storage is no longer available, irrigation ends.
The reservoirs also protect the Treasure Valley from flooding. The key to balancing flood prevention and water storage is a reservoir operating plan that was approved more than 60 years ago.
The plan requires keeping enough open space in the reservoirs to capture high runoff and control the release of water from Lucky Peak Dam. To maintain “flood control spaces,” water must be released early in the year before it can be used. As runoff declines, less flood control space is required and the reservoirs are safely filled.
The plan assures Treasure Valley water users that the reservoirs will be operated this way to fulfill their water rights. Several hundred thousand acre-feet of water may be stored after flood control releases are made.
The state now wants to regulate Boise River water rights by contending that flood control releases count as water that is used, even though that water cannot be stored or used. The state also denies existing holders of water rights the right to store water after flood control releases are made, knowing Idaho law does not allow storage without a water right.
Watermasters who have managed the river since 1986 confirm they have never treated storage water rights as “filled” by flood releases, and all water stored in the reservoirs after flood releases is stored pursuant to storage water rights.
On Oct. 9, a special master for the Snake River Basin Adjudication Court rejected the state’s position, saying “the state’s legal theory essentially makes the priority (of storage rights) meaningless in a flood control year. (W)ithout the ability to capture water in the Boise River Reservoirs, under a protectable priority-based property right, and store such captured water until such time as the same may be used, the Bureau and the water users are left with little to no means to ensure that the water historically used for beneficial purposes can continue to be used in the future.”
That same day, the Idaho Department of Water Resources issued a memorandum directing staff to take enforcement action against the “use, storage or diversion of water in excess of or without a water right.”
Disregarding the special master’s decision, on Oct. 15, IDWR Director Gary Spackman issued a decision that “upheld” his predetermined conclusions to count flood releases against storage water rights and deny Treasure Valley Water Users the right to store water following those releases.
This is how the state is undermining Treasure Valley storage water during flood control years. It is entirely appropriate to inform the public about this threat and seek the assistance of elected officials who govern the state.
Roger Batt is executive director of the Treasure Valley Water Users Association, a regional organization developed to address the need for coordinated collaboration among water delivery entities for the mutual benefit of their respective water users within the Boise River Basin.