Water rights adjudication, and emergency water cleanup will likely be among proposals the 2020 legislature considers, said Paul Arrington, Idaho Water Users Association executive director and general counsel.
Water policy is critical to the state’s economy. Ensuring an adequate supply for agriculture is particularly important in arid south and south-central regions that have extensive irrigation systems.
“Idaho’s water-user community is fortunate to have strong support from the governor’s office and legislature on water issues,” Arrington said. Elected officials historically “have worked tirelessly to facilitate agreements resolving disputes over the use of Idaho’s water, and have enacted legislation to further protect these resources.”
Recent examples include a settlement between surface-water and groundwater users resulting in significant efforts to protect and restore the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, and a landmark settlement agreement involving the use of storage water in the Boise River Basin seen as greatly benefiting irrigators, municipalities and other interests in growing southwest Idaho.
Arrington expects proposed legislation to create a water-rights adjudication for the Bear River Basin. Bear River in the southeast and Kootenai River in the north are the only basins in the state that do not have an authorized adjudication, a court-like proceeding to identify and catalog all water rights.
Shelley Keen, IDWR water allocation bureau chief, said the Bear River Basin has seen serious discussions again this year about authorizing an adjudication “and there may be a proposal this year.”
The department has been meeting with water users and local and regional government officials to discuss when the time might be right to adjudicate the Kootenai Basin, he said. “But the department is not pursuing a legislative proposal in the 2020 session.”
IDWR’s three-phase Northern Idaho Adjudications comprise the nearly completed Coeur d’Alene-Spokane River Adjudication, the Palouse River Adjudication — for which water users started filing claims this year — and a planned Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Adjudication.
“In the department budget this year, there will be intent language seeking authorization for spending authority to commence the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Adjudication in the 2021 time frame,” Keen said.
Also related to water rights, a bill on emergency cleanup is anticipated, Arrington said. It would amend state law to allow the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to start emergency water cleanup without first obtaining a water right.
“The pending amendment requires that IDEQ and IDWR coordinate efforts to ensure that necessary cleanup occurs with minimal impacts to water users,” he said. The concern is that if there is a spill, such as diesel into a water source, “the delay of having to acquire a water right creates a much bigger problem. This eliminates a potential delay in cleaning up contaminated water sources.”
An expected IDWR- sponsored bill would permit water records to be electronically received, filed, recorded or retained. Many are on paper now. “This will improve efficiency when submitting or reviewing documents with IDWR,” Arrington said.
Water users have also been discussing groundwater management areas, but it’s uncertain if legislation will be proposed, he said.
IDWR in early November 2016 issued an order designating the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer as a GWMA. The special designation provides additional administrative protections to aquifers determined to be “approaching the conditions of a critical ground water area,” essentially meaning inflow hasn’t been enough to keep up with outflow, Arrington said.
The general idea is to clarify the process for initiating and challenging a GWMA designation, he said. One of the discussion topics has been possible creation of a committee to advise IDWR on the management area.