U.S. Water News Online
BOISE, Idaho -- Idaho is fighting another Snake River water
This time, it pits the state's largest utility, the Idaho Power
Co., against lawmakers who represent farmers, manufacturers and
cities that pump the valuable -- and scarce -- resource in a state
located on the parched northern rim of the Great Basin Desert.
Members of the House Resources and Conservation Committee approved
a bill for further debate that would let the state take water that
Idaho Power now uses to produce power and send it down irrigation
canals where it could seep back into the Lake Erie-sized Eastern
Snake River Plain Aquifer.
The aquifer has been drained by decades of pump irrigation and six
years of drought, and many in Idaho want to replenish it.
Idaho Power says if the state tries to take its water, its 470,000
ratepayers could face millions more in costs.
This is just the latest water conflict in a state famous for them:
Last year, Idaho settled a decades-old dispute with the Nez Perce
Indians over rights to water in the Snake River. In 2001, it fought
-- and lost -- a pitched battle with the Coeur d'Alene Indians over
rightful ownership of the lower third of Lake Coeur d'Alene.
All but two lawmakers on the 18-member committee voted to approve
the bill for further debate in the House.
"It does not, as some would portend, take water rights" from Idaho
Power, said House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, and sponsor of the
He cited a March 9 opinion from state Attorney General Lawrence
Wasden that a 22-year-old pact between Idaho and Idaho Power gives
the state, not the utility, rights to the water.
"All we're doing is a policy change that changes the way Idaho
manages the trust water that Idaho already owns," Newcomb said.
Meanwhile, Idaho Power officials say they've got first dibs on the
water. They say the 1984 agreement doesn't allow the state to
redirect water they now send through turbines at the utility's 17
What's more, the Boise-based utility says a separate law passed by
the 1994 Legislature guaranteed it protection from just such an
"It's not correct to consider that 1994 legislation was a
mistake," said Jim Tucker, the company's top lawyer. "It was approved
by the (state) Department of Water Resources. It made Idaho Power's
rights senior to recharging the aquifer."
A year ago, companies including the Twin Falls Canal Co., which
controls 110 miles of irrigation canals in south-central Idaho, sued
farmers who get their water from the aquifer, arguing they were
pumping more than their fair share.
This latest fight between the state and Idaho Power has those
groups squaring off once again.
The canal outfits argue efforts to recharge the aquifer would have
little immediate impact. They also say taking the water from Idaho
Power would benefit the same groups that caused the aquifer to shrink
in the first place -- cities, businesses and farms that since the
1950s have extended their pumps ever deeper into the aquifer.
"Who has caused any depletions to the aquifer over the last 10
years? Obviously, the groundwater pumpers," said Vince Alberdi, the
Twin Falls company manager, adding he fears Newcomb's intervention
could upset Idaho's time-honored system of giving "first-come,
first-served" priority to water rights.
"Let's not tinker with water rights," Alberdi said. "They're
sacred, they're the foundation of our economy."
Groundwater pumpers see this as a matter of economic life or
"We have to make adjustments to make sure we can continue in the
future," said Tim Deeg, president of the Idaho Ground Water
Appropriators, whose members include eight southeastern Idaho cities
as well as farming groups. "We rely on (the aquifer) to get us
through droughts. And yet, we don't take care of it. We don't ever
put water back into it."
Idaho Power, as well as the canal companies, favors an approach
being backed by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne that would divert as much as
40,000 acre feet of water into two canals in April, allowing water to
seep into the aquifer.
According to that plan, Idaho Power would be paid $1.6 million by
the state to compensate the utility for the hydropower it would lose.
Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg and another backer of Newcomb's
bill, says he's opposed to paying Idaho Power for something he
believes already belongs to the state.
"Our water rights were tinkered with in 1994," Raybould said.
"Today's the day we untinker them."
Foes say it won't be that easy.
They predict a lawsuit.
"It'll end up in gridlock instead of recharge," said Dan
Shoemaker, chairman of the Twin Falls Canal Co.
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