Idaho  bill aims to reduce irrigation sediment

Photo submitted Sediment-laden farm runoff pours into a drainage canal within the Homedale, Idaho-based Gem Irrigation District. This photo was offered to lawmakers as an example of a water-quality problem targeted for fixing by a bill pending in the Idaho Legislature.

BOISE, Idaho — A bill moving through the Idaho Legislature would give irrigation districts authority to issue special assessments on irrigators whose practices contribute too much sediment to the water supply.

Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association, said the fees would cover costs now borne by the districts, including building infrastructure or taking other actions to clean runoff.

“Every once in a while, we find a landowner who is not willing to correct the problem, and it ends up going as an assessment on all landowners in the district to fix the problems caused by one individual,” Semanko said.

The Idaho Senate passed the bill unanimously, and it’s awaiting approval by the full House, after passing the House Resources and Conservation Committee March 13 on a voice vote.

An amendment has been added to the bill requiring that districts give irrigators prior notice to fix any problems before incurring a fee.

Semanko said cities had questions about what land could be assessed fees but were satisfied upon learning that the bill applies only to irrigators represented by irrigation districts. Furthermore, districts must opt in to receive the authority by approving a bylaw or resolution. Semanko said some irrigation districts have expressed interest in updating their bylaws to participate.

Semanko said irrigation districts have a legal duty to meet minimum water quality requirements, and irrigators testified during discussion on the bill that sediment-laden water reduces farm yields and damages pumps and other equipment.

Semanko said the greatest sediment challenges stem from producers who still flood irrigate, and building sediment retention ponds or adding a product such as polyacrylamide that removes sediment from suspension are the most common solutions.

The bill was suggested by the South Board of Control, which represents the Homedale, Idaho-based Gem Irrigation District. Clancy Flynn, South Board of Control manager, said the majority of irrigators is willing to cooperate on solutions to sediment in runoff, but the legislation would help in a few cases.

“It’s been a perpetual problem I would imagine since the beginning of furrow irrigation in the district,” Flynn said.

Flynn said pivots that put out water too quickly can also pose problems.

“All districts have to deal with it to some extent,” Flynn said.

Flynn said the Gem Irrigation District utilizes drainage canals that return farm runoff, often laden with sediment from flood irrigation, back to the main canal, directly to other water users or to the Snake River.

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