© 2022 Boise State Public Radio
NPR in Idaho
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
The StoryCorps Mobile Tour is back in Boise!

Idaho's Legislative Leaders Push For Special Session Over Boise Water Rights Issue

Scott Graf
Boise State Public Radio
A man-made system waters a cornfield next to a parcel of land in the Treasure Valley.

Legislative leaders say Gov. Butch Otter might call a special legislative session to address a years-long water battle that has been building in southwestern Idaho.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill said Wednesday that an agreement has been reached by all stakeholders regarding flood control releases in the Boise River system reservoirs — which spans from Boise to Parma.

"I am sorry to have to tell you about the special session, but very grateful for the finalization of an agreement on this important issue," Hill, R-Rexburg, said in an email to state senators.

Since 2013, Treasure Valley irrigators and state officials have been caught up in a lengthy legal clash over how much water users are entitled to during snow-heavy years when reservoirs tend to be full and thus water must be released in the early spring to maintain enough space for snow runoff and manage river flows.

It's a delicate balance in ensuring enough water is sent downstream and leaves enough left over for irrigation, recreation and other uses during the hotter months.

According to the Treasure Valley Water Users Association, the state is wrongly counting water released for flood-control purposes against how much irrigators can use. The fear is that these releases begin too early, where fields and canals are still under snow and too wet to be managed, and then leave irrigators without enough water when temperatures rise.

The state counters that since 1986, when the Idaho Department of Water Resources first began using the method, irrigators have gotten their full amount of water owed to them except for one year.

After years of fighting in court, talks began earlier this year to pursue a settlement that would side-step an ending where the Idaho Supreme Court would be forced to potentially upend decades of how the state allocates its water.

The first step, however, is passing key legislation in a special session, said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who has helped oversee some of the state's biggest water fights over the years.

The draft legislation, which will first be reviewed by a legislative interim resource committee on June 6, would state that any new attempts to store water cannot interfere with already existing reservoir storage.

"This will give water users the assurance that in above water years, these flood operations do not inhibit their ability to have a full allotment of water," Bedke said in a phone interview on Wednesday. "Big water years are a good problem to have most of the time. It just speaks to the additional coordination needed to make sure everyone gets their full allotment."

The legislation on its own isn't the entire settlement, but it's a good start to ensuring the agreement can be signed off by all stakeholders, said Roger Batt, executive director of Treasure Valley Water Users Association.

"We applaud the speaker and other legislators in securing this first step," Batt said. "When you have a settlement approved by a judge, your water right has been decreed. Legislation can be overturned."

After the June 6 meeting, the goal would be for a short one-day special session before the state's highest court hears arguments surrounding the Treasure Valley case on June 20, Bedke said.

Sen. Jim Rice is from Caldwell and has pushed for years for an outcome that will keep newer water rights holders in mind.
“It’s taken some time; there’s been some upset feelings over time but I think we’re at the point where we’re likely to have it resolved in a way that everybody is OK with,” says Rice.
The last special session was in 2015, and the governor is the only one who can call them.  A spokesperson for Governor Butch Otter’s office says the Governor has been in communication with House Speaker Scott Bedke and the state Department of Water Resources, but declined to comment further.

Find reporter Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

Copyright 2018 Boise State Public Radio

Frankie Barnhill was the Senior Producer of Idaho Matters, Boise State Public Radio's daily show and podcast.