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Commentaries and editorials

Bell Rapids Water Deal
a Ripoff for Taxpayers

by Jon Marvel
Idaho State Journal - March 22, 2005

The recently announced agreement between the Idaho Department of Water Resources and the Bell Rapids Mutual Irrigation Co. for $24 million to buy water rights for 24,706 acres of farmland should send a cautionary shudder through Idaho taxpayers, since the deal means our pockets will be picked twice.

According to the Letter of Intent signed by the department and Bell Rapids on March 9, the deal would benefit as few as 10 to 15 farmers. It would pay them just over $970 per acre of irrigated farmland for their water rights. This price is more than farmland with water rights in the Bell Rapids project has sold for in years. It is a very bad deal for Idaho taxpayers.

Values for the Bell Rapids irrigated farmlands are so low (as little as $300 an acre) because it can cost as much as $200 per acre a year for the electricity to pump the water over 600 feet vertically from the Snake River to the fields. This very high cost makes the Bell Rapids farmland an undesirable farm purchase for the long term, especially since pumping costs are more likely to go up than down over the next few years. Because of those high costs, many acres in Bell Rapids have been entered into the federal Conservation Reserve Program and are not growing irrigated crops.

The water rights proposed for purchase with tax dollars in this deal have dates of priority of 1963 and 1981. There is no assurance that even those quite-late dates of priority can be maintained under Idaho law if the water is left in the Snake River as planned. The value of these water rights may actually be zero under these circumstances.

An additional problem for taxpayers is that some or all of the water rights being purchased by the department in this deal would then be leased to the Bureau of Reclamation to meet desired instream flows for threatened fish species below Brownlee dam. While this proposed lease agreement may recover some of the initial cost to Idaho taxpayers, the funds for that water lease will come from our federal tax dollars for a second hit on our wallets.

What this proposed deal underlines is that current Idaho water law is not able to protect other uses like fisheries and wildlife habitat without gouging Idaho taxpayers, especially when those alternative uses might impact agriculture. Instead, the Idaho Department of Water Resources, apparently with the assent of the governor's office and the legislative leadership, is ready to pay a few farmers far more than their water is worth for an unclear benefit that could be undermined by current Idaho water law.

At a minimum, two things need to happen before deals like this one go ahead:

Without these simple actions, the Legislature should never take public funds to pay farmers for water rights that the farmers can barely sell, even for farming.

Jon Marvel of Hailey is executive director of Western Watersheds Project.
Bell Rapids Water Deal a Ripoff for Taxpayers
Idaho State Journal, March 22, 2005

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