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Aquifer Recharge Bill Dies in Senate

by Michelle Dunlop
Times-News, March 31, 2006

BOISE -- The momentum built up in the House behind a contentious aquifer recharge bill burst in the Senate on Thursday leaving only one question in its wake.

What happens next?

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb sponsored the legislation that put greater priority on replenishing the depleted aquifer with Snake River water than using that water for generating power through hydroelectric dams. The Senate killed the bill by a vote of 14-21.

"I don't know where we go from here," Newcomb said.

The retiring lawmaker from Burley wants to see something done about the diminishing level of the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer, an aquifer that furnishes water for cities, industry and agriculture in southern Idaho. Diverting abundant flows during wet years to replenish the aquifer is one tool to restoring health to the aquifer, Newcomb says.

But, Idaho Power and surface water users contend the Republican legislator wants to mess with senior water rights for the benefit of groundwater pumpers -- at a cost to power customers.

"A restored aquifer would benefit Idaho Power, Idaho Power ratepayers and their customers," said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who debated in support of House Bill 800.

Cameron argued that the state must assert its right to control the waters of Idaho rather than allowing the power company to control the water.

The state and Idaho Power reached an understanding in 1984 with the Swan Falls Agreement over the uses of water in the Snake River. Two decades and other pieces of legislation have passed. And, in 2006, different parties have varying interpretations of the agreement.

"Idaho Power should be held to the deal it struck," said Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. "Idaho Power should honor its promise to water users."

If the parties want to stick to the original deal, then they'll allow the water court to determine Idaho Power's rights in the Snake River, said Sen. Chuck Coiner, R-Twin Falls.

"I do not believe we need legislative meddling in the process," Coiner said. "Passing 800, to me, only slows the process down."

A board member of the Twin Falls Canal Co., Coiner points out that the Swan Falls Agreement also established a procedure for determining water rights -- the Snake River Basin Adjudication. The SRBA will likely begin ruling on Idaho Power's water rights within the next few months.

Absent any more attempts at a legislative solution, that might be one remedy to the uncertainty of the aquifer's future.

Late on Thursday, Idaho Power officials extended another.

"Idaho Power is willing to commit research dollars and environmental and water management expertise to a collaborative process to help solve Idaho's water issues," said LaMont Keen, chief executive officer.

The power company, surface water users and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne were working on a deal in which the state would pay Idaho Power up to $1.6 million for recharge water when Newcomb introduced his bill. Newcomb doesn't want the taxpayers to reimburse Idaho Power for water he believes already belongs to the state. The lawmaker said he's willing to participate in talks about recharge in the future.

And, Newcomb found one silver lining in the past few weeks of heated debate over Swan Falls and recharge.

"Now that I'm leaving, I feel good about the fact that the institutional knowledge has been passed on," he said.

A look at how Magic Valley legislators voted on House Bill 800

Michelle Dunlop covers the Legislature and natural resources
Aquifer Recharge Bill Dies in Senate
Times-News, March 31, 2006

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