Irrigation takeover would be 'disastrous,' district president says
By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
If the City of Caldwell is successful in taking control of one-third of Pioneer Irrigation District's holdings, it would be detrimental for irrigators and city residents and disastrous for Idaho agriculture, says the district 's president, Alan Newbill.
After nearly five years of litigation over the city's dumping of storm water into Pioneer's system, the city in late November filed a complaint for condemnation of Pioneer's facilities and water rights to take over a large portion of the irrigation district by eminent domain.
If the city is successful and continues to dump into the system, it would risk flooding and pollution and impair maintenance, the irrigation district's leaders say. It would also lead to cost increases for city residents and Pioneer patrons because the rate on Pioneer's storage water in Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs would increase dramatically when they are changed from irrigation use to municipal and industrial use, Newbill said.
There is also the threat of takeover by other cities, he said. But the broader threat is it opens that risk for other irrigation districts statewide by setting a bad precedent, he said.
"We believe the impact to agriculture would be disastrous," he said.
The city's control of Pioneer's facilities and water rights is for the greater public good, to meet drainage needs, expand infrastructure if needed and for urban planning, the city argued in court documents.
The city tried for years to resolve the storm water issue by getting Pioneer to transfer the ditches and drains to the city, which can do a better job of storm water management, but Pioneer refused to discuss it, said the city's attorney, Mark Hilty.
As a last resort, the city filed the complaint of condemnation in order to end the litigation, he said.
For years before it sued the city in 2008, Pioneer representatives appeared before the Caldwell City Council to discuss the illegalities of the city's unapproved dumping and outline the problems the storm water creates within Pioneer's system, Newbill said.
Pioneer was also involved in many other less-formal conversations with city representatives prior to litigation, he said.
"We were met with indifference to the issue at every turn," he said.
Since the lawsuit was filed, Pioneer's directors have had meetings with city representatives and formal mediation sessions. At each meeting, the city has consistently indicated that the only option it was willing to discuss is the city's takeover and ownership of a portion of Pioneer's facilities to "divorce ourselves" from each other, in the city's terms, he said.
"We have spent a great deal of time trying to educate city representatives on the intricacy and interconnectedness of the irrigation system and why it is not feasible to 'divorce ourselves' from each other," he said.
Hilty said the city has been draining storm water into Pioneer's system throughout Caldwell's history, and it's never been a problem. The city does not believe the problems cited by Pioneer exist, but if they do, let it be the city's problem, he said.
It has not been a problem for the city because the city hasn't had to deal with the impacts of storm water, such as maintenance issues and extreme manipulation to avoid flooding, Newbill said.
"The city can say whatever it wants to, but the reality is that it isn't experienced with operating or maintaining our system or familiar with what we deal with on a daily basis in terms of preventing flooding, maintenance difficulties or other associated issues," he said.
Increasing development leads to more municipal storm water disposal pressure, he said.
"Increased storm water now and in the future threaten to overwhelm facility integrity and capacity, among other concerns," he said.
The heart of the issue is whether the irrigation district has the right to control what goes into its facilities, he said.
"We believe we do. Fortunately, the Supreme Court agreed with us in their November 2012 Substitute Opinion," he said.
In its eminent domain suit, it appears the city wants to extinguish any of Pioneer's jurisdiction and authority within city boundaries, including Pioneer's statutory oversight under Idaho law, he said.