Ditch dispute goes too far
It is almost inevitable that neighbors will eventually get crosswise with one another. When that happens, each side should exercise a willingness to reach a workable solution.
When the point of contention is water, the state and federal regulatory structure makes finding that solution exceedingly complicated.
In southwestern Idaho, a disagreement between the City of Caldwell and the Pioneer Irrigation District has blown up into a court battle. The city and the district have been wrangling over the runoff from the city that can get into the irrigation ditches.
That wrangling took a wrong turn when the city, in an apparent effort to make an end run around the district, filed a lawsuit seeking eminent domain over the ditches, water rights and 10,000 acres that belong to the district.
Such draconian steps are usually reserved for securing rights-of-way for roads and other public uses. For a city to attempt condemnation proceedings against an irrigation district can only be described as unprecedented and unneeded.
Norm Semanko, executive director and general counsel for the Idaho Water Users Association, likens such a tactic to the "nuclear option."
We agree, for three reasons.
First, it will damage the district's ability to serve its customers. The area's economy depends on farming, which in turn depends on water.
Second, the eminent domain proceedings may stop the fussing between the city and the district, but it doesn't address the basic concern. For the city to say its runoff and storm water problems would be solved by owning the ditches misses the point, and we bet the state and federal regulatory agencies would agree.
Third, the fundamental problem is how water quality is regulated. Pollution laws are written so that the "potential" for pollution is sufficient reason for regulatory action. That's why ranchers and others have to fence off creeks that go through their property even if no pollution is found.
In our opinion, if pollution is occurring, it needs to be stopped or mitigated. If pollution is not occurring, nothing needs to be done. The regulations are based on "what if," not "what is."
We suggest that the water quality in the irrigation district's ditches be monitored. If pollution exists, address it. If it doesn't exist, the regulatory agencies need to recognize that, too. Similar scenarios are playing out around the West, involving cities, ranches and farms. Nearly all hinge on the "potential" to pollute.
The City of Caldwell needs to back off. Taking over irrigation ditches will not solve its problems now or in the future.
If anything, it will only increase the number of headaches for the city.
The solution lies in the city and irrigation district working together in the Legislature and Congress to fix the how the laws are written.