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Water on Their Minds

by Nate Poppino
Times-News, June 17, 2008

Fish, state management among water seminar topics

SUN VALLEY - Someone must be doing things right when a panel on the Clean Water Act draws a standing-room-only crowd.

The Idaho Water Users Association's annual water law seminar, a two-seminar that began Monday at the Sun Valley Inn, brought canal companies, irrigators, state officials, tribal representatives, lawyers and others together for a review of the major issues facing the state.

Speakers gave updates on litigation surrounding three water calls, a quick review of recent state legislation and the effect of a recent federal plan to manage salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Dean Stevenson, a board member of the Magic Valley Ground Water District, reviewed the Pristine Springs deal and its value to both surface- and groundwater users along the Snake River.

The conference has been held for about 25 years, IWUA executive director Norm Semanko said. His organization views it as a vital part of its education efforts, especially given the increased prominence and effects of water issues on farmers, companies and municipalities. They're topics not everyone understands, he added.

A number of Idaho legislators were in attendance. Semanko said their presence makes it easier to approach them about issues later on.

"It's not a state of us trying to convince them," Semanko said. "It's me reminding them."

Organizers expected about 180 people on Monday. But seats, planned for 200, were hard to find by 10 a.m.

Summarizing the three water calls - in which water users with senior rights said they were not receiving the full shares due to them - surface water attorney Tom Arkoosh argued current proposed solutions don't do enough to reduce demand and respond quickly to the situation. Putting water back into the aquifer is expensive, he said, and expanding storage is not "very nimble."

As an alternative, Arkoosh proposed creating some sort of "water market" in which water rights and even priority dates could be exchanged on the free market.

"I think the means are limited only by our own imagination," he said, describing the various forms such a market could take.

Arkoosh's counterpart, Idaho Ground Water Appropriators attorney Randy Budge, said he was concerned the various parties had become polarized and that he does not expect any officials involved - from the current hearing officer to the Idaho Supreme Court, which may likely hear appeals on the calls - to make huge changes to the current solutions.

"I think both parties need to sit back at this time and say, 'What have we accomplished?'" Budge said.

Two members of the Idaho Water Resources Board - Jerry Rigby of Rexburg and Gary Chamberlain of Challis - talked about the board's work updating the state's water plan. After more than a decade without an update, Chamberlain said the board is scheduled to complete a draft by spring 2009 and hold public meetings that summer. The goal, he said, is to submit it to the Legislature in 2010.

Chamberlain, chairman of the board's water plan subcommittee, exhorted the audience to help support a series of efforts to find more storage along the Snake River.

"Let us not leave the same legacy for our children by failing to build the infrastructure needed for stable power in the great state of Idaho," he said, referring to the current water crisis.

The day ended with a review of recent biological opinions regarding salmon developed by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The controversial opinions were requested by Oregon federal Judge James Redden as part of ongoing litigation over salmon recovery in the Columbia River basin.

John Ogan, legal representation for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, gave a detailed walkthrough of the history of the case. He pointed out details of the latest biological opinion, such as its change to abundance-based quotas on fish, and warned of the dangers of too much litigation. Groups that might keep pressing to have four Lower Snake dams breached - one goal of some environmental groups - could undo all the various interlocked agreements among the parties just by unraveling one.

Tom Stuart, director of Idaho Rivers United, argued that the four Lower Snake dams should still be breached and said that action would lead to more water for Idaho uses. The environmental coalition his group belongs to plans to file an updated brief today opposing the new biological opinion.

"The folks who really want to see salmon recover and water users share a lot of common ground," Stuart told the audience.

Most of the panel emphasized the collaboration that led to the latest opinion. Semanko, speaking as the head of the Coalition for Idaho Water, predicted wider agreement on that opinion will change the courtroom dynamics when the new filing is heard and leave fewer allies for the environmental groups.

Nate Poppino
Water on Their Minds
Times-News, June 17, 2008

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