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Water Deal Has Its Skeptics

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, October 4, 2004

Lawmakers fear plan's impact on constituents

Treasure Valley lawmakers are skeptical of a costly plan aimed at keeping state officials from shutting off pumps for thousands of Magic Valley farmers and businesses.

They worry their mostly urban constituents will be asked to pick up an unfair portion of the burden to buy out struggling farmers to stop the depletion of the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, which underlies 10,000 square miles. The plan aims to increase the flows out of Thousand Springs near Hagerman that replenish the Snake River as it runs past Boise.

The deal would cost $80 to $100 million in state-backed bonds, mostly covered by the farmers and businesses who pump water out of the aquifer. But promoters of the plan also seek to have Boise residents and other water users in the entire Snake River Basin to cover some of the costs.

"Ultimately, if they come up with a deal and want these urban districts to pay a bill for a problem in Twin Falls, I don't think it's going to fly," said Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star.

At stake is whether the entire state will address regional water conflicts or whether the regions will have to address them separately. Treasure Valley lawmakers point out the unique problems of urban areas such as mass transportation and air quality are equally important and also share statewide implications.

"This is a very critical problem; it just doesn't happen to be the only one," said Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise.

Just getting the involved parties to agree to the plan will be hard. Groundwater users are concerned that their share of the costs may be too heavy a burden. Spring users such as fish farmers, the group who has suffered because of the depletion of the aquifer, aren't convinced the plan's combination of pumping water into the aquifer and drying up thousands of acres of farmland is certain enough to increase flows.

They are joined by Idaho Power Co. who holds the largest right to waters flowing in the lower Snake River and has a major stake in seeing flows protected. The electric utility wants to make sure that any plans to pump or recharge water into the aquifer doesn't come at the expense of its water right, which could cost ratepayers.

If no deal is reached, Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Karl Dreher will be forced to order thousands of farmers and businesses to shut off their pumps involuntarily as early as April.

Such an order could send shock waves through the agricultural economy, causing a $750 million to $900 million loss to the state economy, Dreher said.

"The law does not allow me to consider the economic implications," Dreher said.

If Dreher makes the order, a major legal battle is certain, which could take years and cost the state and the parties tens of millions of dollars. Just the uncertainty alone would make it hard for farmers and other businesses to get loans, said House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley.

Politically, the interests of Idaho Power, spring users like Clear Springs Foods, the nation's largest trout producer near Buhl, and urban lawmakers shift some of the power away from Idaho's traditionally omnipotent agricultural community.

With reapportionment shifting votes from eastern Idaho to the Treasure Valley, this water dispute could signal the shift of political power to Boise, said James Weatherby, a Boise State University political science professor.

Proponents need to convince the rest of the state their water problem is a crisis that needs statewide help to solve, he said.

A hit to the economy of nearly a billion dollars would seriously cut into the states tax revenues which provide services to people statewide, Newcomb said. It also would improve the monitoring and management of water statewide and help reduce illegal water use in places like the Treasure Valley.

Any deal that sets a pattern for future water use must make it easier for new industries to buy water and to shift water from agricultural areas to the state's urban areas, said Rep. David Langhorst, D-Boise. "The water that produces $900 million from agriculture in southeast Idaho can produce a whole lot more in industries somewhere else," Langhorst said. "Idaho is one of the few states that doesn't have a water market."

But the issue isn't simply urban versus rural. Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said the deal would set a "dangerous precedent."

"I am going to fight that agreement very hard," Roberts said. It's like Chrysler. We're doing a bailout for some farmers in southern Idaho."

Rocky Barker
Water Deal Has Its Skeptics
The Idaho Statesman, October 4, 2004

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