BOISE — The state in the past few years has upped its efforts to prevent the unauthorized use of water and those enforcement efforts will continue to increase.
Most Idaho Department of Water Resources staff members use Geographic Information System data in their day-to-day work efforts and that has led to increased discovery of unauthorized uses of water without a valid water right, said Rob Whitney, the department’s water distribution section manager.
“That leads to increasing discovery of problems,” he told several hundred people during Idaho Water Users Association’s annual meeting in November. “The more we look, the more we find.”
In the past, formal enforcement actions against unauthorized water use were rare and complaints were addressed at the regional level, Whitney said.
But as water supplies and water rights have become more limited, that has led to increased pressure to take enforcement actions against people who use or store water without a water right or exceed the parameters of that right, he said.
Most of the complaints the department receives come from other water users, IDWR Water Compliance Bureau Chief Tim Luke told the Capital Press.
“It’s sort of an issue of fairness to them,” he said.
IDWR has dedicated more resources to water enforcement in recent years and might seek additional funding to expand them, Whitney said.
The department in 2012 added a full-time position to coordinate enforcement efforts and developed an enforcement data base in 2013.
Luke said the goal of the department’s enforcement actions is to correct unauthorized water users,not to punish people.
“We’re not trying to be punitive,” he said. “We’re trying to stop (unauthorized water use) and get them into compliance, if we can.”
But the department will take formal enforcement action if a problem isn’t corrected. Between 2013 and 2015, IDWR issued 89 notices of violation and collected $314,461 in civil penalties.
IDWR plans to do more area-specific audits to flush out problems.
During a pilot project in the Upper Big Wood River basin in 2014, IDWR staff reviewed 490 parcels, issued 30 notices of violation and collected about $20,000 in civil penalties.
Other large-scale audits are planned for or are ongoing in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, Raft River and Mountain Home areas.
IDWR issued a memo to staff in October that outlines the department’s policy on the enforcement process.
The memo came as news to Boise water attorney Dan Steenson, who asked Whitney during the IWUA meeting why water users weren’t involved in creating it.
“I do have a lot of questions about this,” he said. “This is the first I’ve heard of this and this does seem rather significant.”
“Why didn’t they talk to us about it beforehand?” Steenson said later. “Is this something they should only be doing by rule-making?”
Luke said the memo documents existing department policy on the issue and is meant to ensure consistency in the enforcement process.
“It’s just guidance to staff on how to implement that process,” he said.