U.S. Water News Online
BOISE, Idaho -- The Senate gave final approval to a
multimillion-dollar legislative package that will stave off economic
turmoil in south-central Idaho for at least a year.
The unanimous vote, matching support the package got in the House,
sends the hastily negotiated deal over water rights to Gov. Dirk
Kempthorne, who played a big role in putting the agreement together.
Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron called the pact tenuous,
arguing that the state's commitment is critical to keep 1,300 wells
pumping to farms, dairies, cities and businesses in the region beyond
the end of the month.
``It buys us one-year, in which the participants are kept at bay,
to find a permanent solution and that is a healthier aquifer,'' the
Rupert Republican said.
The pieces of the package, among the final votes taken before the
Legislature adjourned its election-year session evening, included the
cash to finance it, creation of a special commission to promote the
region's aquaculture industry and designation of the Joint Natural
Resource Committee as the panel charged with finding the solution to
the Middle Snake River water crisis.
The last remaining parties to the agreement formally signed
shortly before the legislative package was approved.
There was little debate over the package because it moved through
both houses so quickly. Its sponsors said all lawmakers were aware of
the consequences if the deal was not enacted.
The plan earmarks $550,000 in general tax receipts in the current
budget and another $1.1 million in the next budget to implement the
agreement between groundwater and surface water users.
Another $300,000 is being diverted from the Water Resources
Department's Snake River Aquifer recharge program to develop an
aquifer management plan. The Soil Conservation Service will earmark
$800,000 over the next 15 months to help convert groundwater users to
surface water users in areas close to the Middle Snake River.
The deal was prompted by Water Resource Director Karl Dreher's
order that 1,300 irrigation and other wells north of the Middle Snake
would be shut down April 1 unless a plan was developed to fill senior
water rights, primarily those of the commercial fish hatcheries in
the Hagerman Valley.
The well shutdown would have resulted in the loss of up to
hundreds of millions of dollars by junior water users in Gooding,
Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka and Blaine counties.
The surface water users have maintained for years that the wells
have drained the aquifer to the point that it no longer feeds surface
streams with enough water to fulfill their rights. Four years of
drought have aggravated the problem.
So the hatcheries invoked state law requiring water users with
rights more recent then theirs to be cut off so the hatchery rights
could be filled. They account for 75 percent of the nation's
commercial trout production.
Among the potential solutions are recharging the aquifer, building
new water storage facilities, finding alternatives to wells to reduce
groundwater withdrawals and taking land out of production to reduce
This spring, the state will provide $520,000 to rent 40,000 acre
feet of water that will be diverted to surface users to make up for
reduced natural spring and stream flows.
Beginning this summer, the state will provide $500,000 in grants
for spring users to modify their water-use infrastructure to reduce
demand and another $500,000 in loans to groundwater users to finance
their upfront costs in assuring the surface user water rights are
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