Hearings on Idaho flood-control water dispute tabled

The director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources will wait for an Idaho Supreme Court decision before commencing with related hearings about accounting for flood-control releases from storage reservoirs.

By John O’Connell

Capital Press

Published on December 11, 2013 11:40AM

POCATELLO, Idaho — Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman is tabling hearings on related cases delving into how storage water rights and junior natural-flow rights should be affected by Bureau of Reclamation flood-control releases.

During a status conference in Pocatello Monday, Spackman ruled a hearing on accounting for flood-control releases in the Upper Snake River System should be postponed, pending a ruling in an Idaho Supreme Court case scheduled to commence Jan. 24 regarding similar subject matter. The director indicated he also plans to table a hearing about flood-control management in the Boise River system.

Storage water holders in both systems, including the Upper Snake Surface Water Coalition and the Boise Project, are challenging current state protocol, deeming storage rights are met when reservoirs fill, even if water is subsequently released for flood control and snowmelt doesn’t completely offset the losses.

Storage holders seek the right to curtail junior natural-flow rights downstream from reservoirs until all storage space emptied for flood control has refilled.

“It’s a pretty big, important subject, for the storage rights holders in particular,” said attorney Al Barker, who represents Boise Project irrigators. “Why should storage rights holders be the ones to suffer for (flood-control) actions that benefit everybody?”

Irrigators with junior natural-flow rights contend the reservoir system was built with flood control in mind and the definition of a full reservoir must account for management decisions to protect private property. They argue shutting down junior natural flow rights over flood releases would be wasteful and violate state mandates that water be put to maximum beneficial use.

“There is no reason to change Water District 1’s account methodologies because of a few complaints when the current methodology benefits so many,” attorney Robert L. Harris, who represents natural-flow rights holders with Palisades Water Users Inc., said in a court filing.

Jerry Rigby, who represents junior natural-flow irrigators from Blackfoot and north, said changing the policy would prevent aquifer recharge efforts in many cases and send the message that Idaho has no water to accommodate new industry.

“Are you going to shut down the river, even though in the end there would be plenty of water for everyone?” Rigby asked.

Spackman scheduled hearings on the issue after District Judge Eric Wildman remanded to IDWR the accounting question of what constitutes fill of a reservoir. The storage users appealed Wildman’s decision to the Supreme Court, asking the court to determine if flood-control releases are in priority.

Barker believes the Supreme Court is the proper venue for making a decision, given that Spackman has already stated his position and would be asked to rule on his own policy.

Lyle Swank, watermaster of Water District 1, said 2012 was the most recent year in which the Bureau of Reclamation released too much water for flood control, allowing 500,000 acre feet to spill below Milner Dam with just 200,000 acre feet refilling.

“It’s one of those things where you’re trying to hit a target a couple of months in advance without knowing how much precipitation you’ll get and what supply and demand is going to be,” Swank said.


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