Idaho Fighting Another
by John Miller, Associated Press
BOISE, Idaho -- Idaho is fighting another Snake River water war.
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 on Wednesday 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.
On Wednesday, 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 plan.
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 dams.
What's more, the Boise-based utility says a separate law passed by the 1994 Legislature guaranteed it protection from just such an attack.
"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 underground reservoir 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 death.
"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. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.
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.
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