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Water Users Have Voice in Washington, D.C.

by Patricia R. McCoy, Staff Writer
Capital Press, February 24, 2006

The Clean Water Act gives the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responsibility for water quality in all the country's streams and lakes. Some say that includes irrigation canals and drains. Others say no.

The U.S. Supreme Court accepted a number of lawsuits for review arguing the various sides of that question. The National Water Resources Association is keeping a close eye on all of them.

"Corps involvement causes real complications for an irrigation company's operating and maintenance activities," said Norm Semanko, NWRA president. "If they have jurisdiction, that becomes an issue every time our members want a new lateral, need to install a culvert, or if they have to pipe a canal.

"We're working on this issue on several fronts, including with Bush administration officials and Congress," he said.

The NWRA is an umbrella organization for 14 Western state water-user groups, including those from California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. It advocates federal policies, legislation and regulations that promote the protection, management, development and beneficial use of water resources, Semanko said.

The NWRA held its annual strategy session in Phoenix in January and chose several major issues on which to focus this year. The question of Corps jurisdiction over canals and drains is of No. 1 importance, he said.

Getting Endangered Species Act legislation through the U.S. Senate is a close second in terms of major priorities, he said.

"We want an ESA that will work better for people and species, and hopefully be more friendly to landowners and irrigators. We are part of the National ESA Reform Coalition. We were on hand last September when the U.S. House passed the Pombo bill, and we're supporting similar legislation in the Senate," Semanko said.

NWRA representatives also testified at a hearing last September for a bill sponsored by Rep. Butch Otter, R-Idaho, making it clear that complying with existing labels is sufficient when canal companies need to treat irrigation water and canal banks for weeds or other pests. Otter's bill clarifies that applicators following the federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act need not also get snarled up in a bunch of Clean Water Act red tape, he said.

The bill is currently in a House Water Resources subcommittee. The NWRA supports it, he said.

Longer term, the organization is looking closely at the aging infrastructure of irrigation dams across the West, Semanko said. Many are nearing 100 years old or so.

"Irrigators pay annually for the operation and maintenance of those dams. That's one thing; paying for retrofitting and rehabilitating them is quite another. For instance, the valves were replaced at Arrowrock Dam above Boise last year. That project cost over $20 million," he said.

"Water users are being asked to pay up front for a lot of these projects. In many cases, the resulting assessment would be three or four times the amount they're already paying," he said. "In the case of Arrowrock, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, got special legislation passed which spreads the pay back over a 15-year period. We need some type of program in place that will take care of all these projects. Passing special legislation for each one as it comes up is too cumbersome and time-consuming."

The NWRA has an Aging Infrastructure Committee chaired by a former Bureau of Reclamation assistant for water and science. Members are currently being surveyed to learn the exact extent of the problem.

The organization also works closely with the Family Farm Alliance, an organization looking at new water supply projects, he said. The goal is to find new water storage and to preserve what exists to preserve the economic future of the West.

Some months ago, Otter convened various water-user groups, including flood controllers, cities and others besides irrigators, to look at finding new storage. At that group's request, the Bureau of Reclamation is doing a study that should be completed this spring, looking at the potential for new water storage and related questions, he said.

"There's no doubt we need more water in the West, particularly with our growing population. There's also the question of flood control. We can wring our hands all we want and talk about how foolish people are to build near rivers, but people do. Sooner or later, we will have a major flood. Boise, for example, is at very high risk. This basin produces an average 2 million acre feet of water a year. We can store about half of that. A really big flood would be more than our dams on the Boise River (Anderson Ranch, Arrowrock and Lucky Peak) could handle," Semanko said.

"This study is not just something of interest to the people who asked for it. It's a good planning tool for BuRec. The Corps of Engineers is also involved, because they have primary responsibility for flood control," he said.

"On a smaller scale, we're also looking at who pays for security at our dams and how to pay for it. That's a concern for water users across the West. Historically, this has been treated as an expense for the entire nation, not just water users," he said.

Semanko serves a two-year term as NWRA president, through 2006. He is the second Idahoan to hold that office.

Patricia R. McCoy, Kingsburg, Calif.
Water Users Have Voice in Washington, D.C.
Capital Press, February 24, 2006

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