U.S. Water News Online
BOISE, Idaho -- As House Speaker Bruce Newcomb and Keith
Allred, a Harvard professor, watched the Senate debate over a bill to
allow the state to take water from the Snake River to help recharge
an eastern Idaho aquifer, they noticed the same thing -- Idaho is
Proponents of the plan, touted by Newcomb as a solution to
replenishing an aquifer that's been depleted by 50 years of
groundwater pumping and six years of drought, came largely from
Idaho's agrarian east.
Those fighting against it were almost solely from the state's west
and north, the more populous half of the state that has seen great
growth in recent decades.
The fight was over water, but it revealed something about the
character of a state that, despite its farming roots, sees more
revenue these days from microchip sales than the potato chips for
which it is famous.
"No question, times have changed," Newcomb, R-Burley, said in an
interview. "We're evolving as a state, from rural to urban."
The Senate voted 21-14 to kill the bill in a victory for the Idaho
Power Co., the state's largest utility. Idaho Power had fought the
measure with television ads and letters to its 455,000 customers,
contending the proposal would take water needed to produce hydropower
and would force it to raise rates by millions of dollars.
It was a defeat for Newcomb, who along with allies from eastern
Idaho had characterized the issue as a matter of economic life or
death -- a dwindling aquifer, down from its historically high levels
of the 1940s, could spell ruin for thousands of farmers, businesses
and cities that draw water with pumps from the Lake-Erie-sized
underground waterway beneath the desert.
The House passed the bill earlier this month.
Idaho is America's third-fastest-growing state, behind Nevada and
Arizona, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, whose figures show the
state's most-populous regions have grown three times faster than the
state's rural areas.
Of the 21 votes against the measure, only two came from rural
southern or eastern Idaho: Sen. Tom Gannon, R-Buhl, and Sen. Chuck
Coiner, R-Twin Falls.
Coiner had a stake in the vote. He's on the board of the Twin
Falls Canal Co., which had opposed the measure, arguing its water
rights were threatened by the bill and that the solution to a
depleted aquifer wasn't recharge, but reducing use of its water.
"My legislative district in Twin Falls is the Twin Falls Canal
Co., and they opposed it. And ranchers in Owyhee County feared for
the priority of their water rights," Gannon told the Associated
Press. "It was a constituency issue."
And just three senators who favored the measure -- Sens. Joe
Stegner, R-Lewiston, Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Monty Pierce,
R-New Plymouth -- came from an urban district, northern district or a
district west of Boise.
"As a fifth-generation Idahoan who grew up in Twin Falls, I felt
we were seeing the changes in the state manifest themselves in the
debate, and in the vote," said Allred, who also is president of The
Common Interest, an Idaho organization of self-proclaimed political
Newcomb based his bill on a legal opinion from Attorney General
In it, Wasden determined a 1984 pact between Idaho and Idaho Power
gives the state, not the utility, rights to water above guaranteed
Newcomb wanted to use water this year to send it down canals,
where it would have seeped into the aquifer. Advocates of his plan
said anything short of that would be leaving the future of Idaho's
water in the hands of a single, powerful company -- not the people of
"There's been great political power that's been brought to bear on
this issue," said Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, who debated the
bill for an hour. "House Bill 800 simply seeks to protect Idaho's
right to use the state's trust water for the benefit of the state as
Lawmakers who opposed Newcomb's plan said they feared intervening
would be an encroachment into Idaho Power's right to the water as
guaranteed elsewhere -- in a law passed by the 1994 Legislature.
Opponents also said the bill could mire Idaho in years of
"If House Bill 800 passes, it will be challenged in court. It
would not get us to a conclusion faster. Passing House Bill 800 slows
the process down," Coiner said, adding that just because Newcomb had
secured Wasden's legal opinion, that didn't mean it would hold up
before a judge. "The attorney general's opinion is just one opinion,
just one side of the coin."
Following the vote, Idaho Power Chief Executive Officer LaMont
Keen said in a statement the company would work "cooperatively to
resolve Idaho's water issues." He didn't offer specifics.
Before Newcomb's bill was introduced, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne had
been negotiating with the utility for taxpayers to pay $1.4 million
to the company -- in exchange for water to be flooded down canals
near American Falls in an aquifer recharge pilot project.
Mike Journee, Kempthorne's press secretary, said that plan is now
off the table because it is too late in the season. Starting April 1,
irrigators will begin using many canals for their fields.
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