Idaho Water Issues Begin To Heat Up

Published online: Nov 30, 2004 AP
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So far up to December 1, very little moisture has fallen in the Upper Snake River Valley/western Wyoming snow basins.

While the eastern and southern Idaho agriculture industry waits patiently for the forecast of more snow, the battle over water in the lower river system is beginning to heat up.

Members of a special panel created to head off a water crisis in southern and eastern Idaho said they were optimistic about finding an agreement to avoid legal action.

Talks are taking place daily and the authority of the special panel will be extended beyond today's expiration.

The group--which includes lawmakers, lawyers and industry officials--is charged with reaching an agreement by March 15, the deadline agreed to by the governor, legislature and water users.

After that, the commercial fish hatcheries at Hagerman, ID, which draw from and have rights to the "Thousand Springs" on the north canyon wall of the Snake River, which started the dispute, will be free to demand their full water rights. This may require irrigators in the underground drainage areas upstream to shut down 1,300 wells, a right the hatchery operators say they'll assert without a deal.

Such a move, officials say, would undermine the economy in southern and eastern Idaho.

The stakes are high. Users are down to the point where they will have to assess what they can afford, according to those leading the panel.

The middle Snake River, between Burley and the Hagerman area, once with a limitless water supply, has been undermined by five years of drought and increased irrigation by deep wells in the aquifer estimated to encompass 10,000 square miles.

That combination has been blamed for reducing natural flows to the springs which are now in the dozens, not thousands.

Fish hatcheries in the Hagerman Valley have asserted their legal claims to full water rights. They pulled back last year after the state promised $2 million for replacement water this year and to help all users find more efficient ways to use the limited resource.

They promised to reassert their claim to full rights next spring if no acceptable deal is reached. That would ignite a legal battle with the groundpumpers who would have their water turned off, subjecting the region to years of financial uncertainty.

Money will likely be the solution to buy out water rights so supply comes back in line with demand, to purchase water for transfer to those legally demanding it, or implement new technology to stretch existing supplied to meet demand of users.

In late summer, one group proposed selling $100 million in bonds to finance solutions to the crisis only to run into skepticism from urban lawmakers, who question whether their constituents should bear a disproportionate share of the cost of solving a regional, rural problem.

If the state goes into a sixth year of drought, which has already been predicted by some weather forecasting experts, it will rock the water rights of possibly the entire Snake River, just after an adjudication process had re-established water rights on the river system. The effort has been under way for years.

Irrigators may have the abililty to put their irrigation water in conduits to decrease seepage, but many of earliest water rights have been based on the continual seepage from irrigation systems going back as far as the late 1800s. This has now been complicated by the many well pumpers who have been given water pumping rights over the last 30-40 years.