Vote Against Aquifer Recharge Plan Splits Idahoby John Miller, Associated Press
Casper Star Tribune, April 2, 2006
BOISE, Idaho -- The Senate on Thursday defeated a bill that would have allowed Idaho to take water from the Snake River to help recharge an eastern Idaho aquifer that's been depleted over the last 50 years by groundwater pumping and drought.
It was a victory for the Idaho Power Co., the state's largest utility, which had fought the measure with television ads and letters to its 455,000 customers that claimed the move would take water needed to produce hydropower -- and force it to raise rates by millions of dollars.
The 21-14 Senate vote was a defeat for House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, who along with allies from eastern Idaho had characterized the issue as a matter of economic life or death: A dwindling aquifer, down from its historically high levels of the 1940s, could spell ruin for thousands of farmers, businesses and cities that draw water with pumps from the Lake-Erie-sized underground waterway beneath the desert.
After the vote, Newcomb said the Senate's decision was just another sign of Idaho's changing demographics. Judging from the vote, he said, power has shifted to Idaho's more-populous west and north and away from the agrarian east.
The House passed the bill earlier this month.
Idaho is the third-fastest-growing state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, whose figures show the state's most-populous regions have grown three times faster than the rest of the state.
Of the 21 no votes, only two came from rural eastern Idaho: Sen. Tom Gannon, R-Buhl, and Sen. Chuck Coiner, R-Twin Falls.
Coiner is on the board of the Twin Falls Canal Co., which had opposed the measure, arguing its water rights were threatened by the bill and that the solution to a depleted aquifer wasn't recharge, but reducing use of its water.
And just three senators who favored the measure -- Sens. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Monty Pierce, R-New Plymouth -- came from an urban district, northern district or a district west of Boise.
"As a fifth generation Idahoan who grew up in Twin Falls, I felt we were seeing the changes in the state manifest themselves in the debate, and in the vote," said Keith Allred, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and director of The Common Interest, an Idaho organization of self-proclaimed political moderates. He watched the 3.5-hour session from the Senate gallery.
In it, Wasden determined that a 1984 pact between Idaho and Idaho Power gives the state, not the utility, rights to water above guaranteed minimum levels.
Newcomb wanted to use water this year to send it down canals, where it would have seeped into the aquifer to replenish it. Advocates of his plan said anything short of that would be leaving the future of Idaho's water in the hands of a single, powerful company -- not the people of the state.
"There's been great political power that's been brought to bear on this issue," said Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, who debated the bill for an hour. "House Bill 800 simply seeks to protect Idaho's right to use the state's trust water for the benefit of the state as a whole."
Lawmakers who opposed Newcomb's plan said they feared intervening would be an encroachment into Idaho Power's right to the water as guaranteed elsewhere -- in a law passed by the 1994 Legislature.
Opponents also said the bill could mire Idaho in years of litigation.
"If House Bill 800 passes, it will be challenged in court. It would not get us to a conclusion faster. Passing House Bill 800 slows the process down," Coiner said, adding that just because Newcomb had secured Wasden's legal opinion, that didn't mean it would hold up before a judge. "The attorney general's opinion is just one opinion, just one side of the coin."
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