Deadline Looms for State Water Dealby Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, March 28, 2005
Farmer's 2001 deal was wake-up call for legislators
Federal fisheries officials wouldn't allow Burbank, Wash., farmer Robert Smith to take more water out of the Columbia River for his farm unless he put in an equal amount somewhere else.
So Smith came to Idaho and bought 7,244 acre-feet of water — enough to irrigate 2,400 acres — and sent it down the Snake River. His 2001 water deal was a wake-up call for House Speaker Bruce Newcomb and others about the threat of losing control over more than 200,000 acre-feet of water diverted from the Snake River below Thousand Springs.
"When I see deals like that, it scares me," Newcomb said. "It's critical we keep Idaho in control of its water."
Smith's deal eventually led to the proposal now before the Idaho Legislature for the state to purchase 74,000 acre-feet of water from the Bell Rapids Mutual Irrigation Co. The $24 million price tag and the fact that 10 to 20 farmers who own the water rights no longer can afford to pump the water 600 feet above the river because of rising electric rates has critics calling the proposed deal a bailout.
But one of the people who sold the water to Smith believes the state is getting a good deal. The appraisal, obtained from the Department of Water Resources by The Idaho Statesman, sets the value of the water at $250 to $350 an acre-foot. The state has offered to pay $300 an acre-foot.
Bill Ringert — a retired water attorney, former state senator and owner of the Cold Spring Winery near Hammett — said he and other owners of water in the area said a study they commissioned estimated the value at $433 to $500 an acre-foot.
"I think the state is getting a good deal at that price, I really do," Ringert said.
Ringert sold 474 acre-feet to Smith in 2001 for about $85,000 or $179.27 an acre-foot, according to the Bell Rapids appraisal obtained by The Statesman. Others with later, junior rights sold Smith water at prices ranging from $90 to $92 an acre-foot.
Without water, farms dry up
Since 2001, the water Smith bought has flowed down the Snake River to aid salmon, and he gets to water his crops in Washington.
Meanwhile, the Idaho lands once irrigated with the Smith-purchased water lie idle or are returning to desert conditions. The implement sales and supplies once purchased by their farmers now are spent in Washington. The income from the crops and the taxes Smith pays flowed downstream with the water.
The water had been pumped hundreds of feet above the Snake River canyon to croplands on surrounding plateaus since the 1960s. It was among the last of the desert given away under the Desert Land Act of 1877 to farmers who irrigated it.
What makes those rights so valuable is there are no water users above or below them who have the right under Idaho's first-come, first-served doctrine to shut them off.
Here's why: Even though the Desert Entry projects were started in the 1960s, the farmers are diverting the water downstream from those with senior rights and couldn't deliver water to the upstream users.
"I think it will be a long time before the flows will diminish so low below Thousand Springs that those rights won't be satisfied," Ringert said. "It won't happen in my lifetime, and probably not yours, either."
Deal deadline is this week
The Legislature must approve the $24 million for the deal before Thursday or the Bell Rapids farmers can pull out of the deal. A proposal to allow the 20-cent cigarette tax hike passed two years ago to remain in place to pay for the water is before the House Revenue and Tax Committee today.
Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watershed Project, wrote in a guest opinion last Tuesday in The Idaho Statesman that the water rights are going for more than the land has sold for in recent years. Even though the water would be leased to the Bureau of Reclamation to meet its requirements to increase flows in the Snake River for salmon, it's a bad deal for taxpayers, Marvel said.
"While this proposed lease agreement may recover some of the initial costs to Idaho taxpayers, the funds for that water lease will come from federal tax dollars for a second hit on our wallets," Marvel said.
If the Legislature doesn't approve the deal, the Bureau of Reclamation will seek to buy the water as authorized by the legislation the state passed to approve the Nez Perce Water Rights Agreement, said Rich Rigby, Bureau of Reclamation special assistant to the Pacific Northwest regional director in Boise.
"If they don't buy it, we're in the hunt to buy it ourselves," Rigby said.
State officials say that if the bureau buys the water and changes are made in the requirements for salmon — for instance, four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington are breached — then the state wouldn't have control of the water. Federal owners would have to answer to the nation's interest, not Idaho's.
Washington and Oregon combined have more political clout, and there is continued interest in diverting more water for agriculture downstream — to do what Smith did with Idaho's water.
"I will always prefer Idaho own the water than the federal government," said Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association.
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