the film
Commentaries and editorials

Newcomb, Idaho Power
Reach Deal on Snake River Aquifer

by Shawna Gamache
Idaho Statesman, April 12, 2006

Utility company wants state to renegotiate

The depleted Snake River aquifer in Eastern Idaho will get a fuller recharge from surface water, and Idaho Power Co. customers may pay a little more as a result. That's the result of a deal late Tuesday to settle a dispute between Idaho Power and retiring House Speaker Bruce Newcomb.

Idaho Power signed an agreement to allow the state to divert some water from the Snake River to the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, recharging the aquifer in high water years. Idaho Power wanted the water to generate hydroelectricity at some of its dams.

Idaho Power said the plan could cost its 455,000 customers up to $30 million a year, though it likely will cost less. But key lawmakers said there should be no extra cost because Idaho Power will be able to maintain necessary flows.

"It's going to be water over and above what we use," said Newcomb, R-Burley, a farmer and rancher who has been pushing the plan all session to help crop farmers and Magic Valley fish farmers who depend on the aquifer. "Recharge is not going to happen except in high-water years."

The compromise lets the state divert up to 2,000 cubic feet per second from the Snake into the aquifer as long as Idaho Power's minimum water rights are maintained. The aquifer feeds farmland and springs throughout southern Idaho.

Negotiations among lawmakers, the governor's office and the power company began soon after the Senate rejected a House-passed bill Newcomb wrote to let the state divert water into the aquifer. That bill said the 1984 Swan Falls agreement made with Idaho Power meant that as long as the state maintained minimum flows to the company's dams, the state could divert water if necessary.

But Idaho Power said that bill would have cost its ratepayers $80 million to $120 million. Some senators also were uncertain whether the state had the right to divert water from Idaho Power's hydroelectric dams.

Idaho Power said Tuesday that it now agrees with lawmakers and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne that the utility had accepted the state's right to divert a certain amount of water in the 1984 Swan Falls agreement.

"We dismissed those water rights with the original Swan Falls agreement," said Greg Panter, Idaho Power's vice president for public affairs. "A deal's a deal. We made a deal, and we'll live up to it."

Still, Panter said, if the state exercises those rights, higher electricity bills would result. But any rate increases would have to be approved by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, and Idaho Power would have to justify raising rates in spite of getting its minimum river flows, said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who helped broker the deal.

"They already have far more water than they're using at all of their plants," Cameron said. Mountain snowpacks are big this year, so "we're probably going to have to start spilling water over all of those dams when the runoff comes down," he said. There are still issues to resolve, Cameron said. Idaho Power says a 1994 state law makes its water rights more important than recharging the aquifer, and that question may have to be resolved in court.

More about the agreement

The agreement: Idaho Power acknowledges that its water rights are subordinate to two water rights established in the 1984 Swan Falls agreement. This lets the state divert up to 2,000 cubic feet per second of water into the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.

Who signed it? Lawrence Wasden, state attorney general James C. Tucker, Idaho Power Co. attorney

Who else was involved in negotiations? Representatives from the governor's office, the House, the Senate, and Idaho Power.

What is still unresolved? The agreement clears up the water rights in the 1984 Swan Falls agreement, but not a 1994 state law that Idaho Power says gives its water right power over recharging the aquifer. If Idaho Power wants to fight for more than the minimum level expressed in the Swan Falls agreement, there may still be a lawsuit to settle the questions raised by the 1994 law. Also, some smaller power companies not included in the agreement have senior power rights at Milner Dam and may choose to bring those up for resolution.

What happens now? The agreement will require no legislative approval or law change. The Water Resource Board now has the right to go forward and issue permits for recharging the aquifer.

Shawna Gamache
Newcomb, Idaho Power Reach Deal on Snake River Aquifer
Idaho Statesman, April 12, 2006

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation