City's land grab alerts districts
By NORM SEMANKO
For the Capital Press
Why in the world would a city want to take over an irrigation district by force?
That is the question posed by the City of Caldwell's eminent domain lawsuit as it seeks to take control of water rights, reservoir storage, water delivery canals, drains and wells owned by Pioneer Irrigation District in Canyon County in southwestern Idaho.
The answer: Caldwell's city government is tired of playing by the rules and wants to make up its own rules instead. To do that, Caldwell has decided to simply take over a large portion of the Pioneer system.
The eminent domain action, unprecedented in Idaho, must also serve as a warning shot across the bows of other irrigation organizations across the state that have urban areas within their geographical boundaries.
The Idaho Supreme Court recently confirmed in a unanimous decision that the City of Caldwell must have written permission from the irrigation district before the city can dump wastewater into the district's canals and drains. That's to avoid injury to Pioneer's system and its water users -- urban and rural.
That is state law, plain and simple. It is also a notion supported by 83 percent of the folks who ran for the Idaho State Legislature this year.
But to avoid these rules, Caldwell's city fathers have decided to employ their own nuclear option by condemning the irrigation district's facilities and water rights. Then the city figures it can make its own rules.
The problem is: They can't.
First of all, the lawsuit is likely to fail. There is no precedent for this kind of draconian action in Idaho or anywhere else -- action which threatens to cripple the irrigation delivery system that has provided reliable, affordable irrigation water to the area's farms and homes for more than a century.
Secondly, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality still govern water quality; and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will play a key role in setting the new price for the reservoir storage water, which will go up significantly -- some estimates say as much as 4,200 percent -- if Caldwell takes control.
Even if, by some slim chance, the city prevails against the irrigation district, it can't use eminent domain to take over all of these government agencies. Maybe they think they can. That wouldn't be the first time the city has got it wrong.
Caldwell is pursuing a reckless, expensive and seemingly endless boondoggle that needs to stop. Instead, the city would do well to step up and do what cities and irrigators have been doing across Idaho since statehood: working together cooperatively, with respect for and adherence to state law, to craft solutions.
Caldwell's wastewater problem is real, but it is no more difficult to solve than the myriad of water resource issues that we have confronted over our history.
Let's stop the nonsense and get to work.
Norm Semanko is executive director and general counsel for the Idaho Water Users Association.