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Otter Vows to Protect Idaho Water

by Pat McCoy
Capital Press, February 2, 2007

State's constitution is 'sancrosanct,' says new governor

BOISE - Newly seated Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said the right things to water users in his first major address to an agricultural industry group by pledging to protect Idaho water law.

"Water is one of our most precious resources, a key ingredient of life as we know it. It provides for the financial well-being of damn near every attorney in Idaho," he said, drawing laughter and applause from the Idaho Water Users Association. "We make more decisions about water in the courts than at the headgate. It's wrong.

"Article 15, Section 3, of the Idaho Constitution regarding water law is sacrosanct. It stands between us and certain disaster," Otter told the IWUA annual convention. "Allowing that to be bent or abused is to our detriment.

"I know I'm preaching to the choir, but you'll never have another governor as interested in water as I am," he said.

"The lawsuits are dragging on, and they'll continue as long as (Oregon Federal) Judge James Redden says the Endangered Species Act trumps the Idaho Constitution. He has his priorities. I have mine. My job is to protect Idaho water, and my administration is ready to aggressively do so," Otter said.

Idaho must protect itself and its water as new biological opinions are being drafted for the Upper Snake and Columbia rivers, the governor said.

"The key is balance. This will require common sense," he said. "Water is one of those things that people see as an entitlement. Unfortunately, it's not unlimited."

Domestic use is the top priority for water, something the state must continue to provide with more and more people moving to Idaho, he said in his keynote address.

"Agriculture and irrigation are also important uses. We have great agricultural land that would revert to desert without water," the governor said. "The Constitution mentions mining use as second to domestic use, but irrigation is third. Fourth is our relatively inexpensive hydropower. Again, water is the key." (see Idaho Constitution, Article 15 - Water Rights)

Some federal and legal requirements are changing how Idaho uses and manages its water, he said.

The Idaho Supreme Court will soon rule on the constitutionality of conjunctive management rules, promulgated by the Idaho Department of Water Resources to outline how connected ground and surface water was to be managed together, he said. As soon as that ruling is issued, Otter pledged to convene a water summit with all the principals concerned involved.

"If we need to revamp Idaho's rules, I want it done before the next session of the state Legislature," he said. "I don't have the final solution. I don't know that any one person does. But I will champion the solution you come up with so long as it fits within the Idaho Constitution and state water law.

"The Snake River Basin Aquifer is one of our greatest natural resources. It's a natural wonder. Today we know, as our grandfathers did not, that the aquifer and the river are connected. Withdrawals from each affect the other," he said.

"Recharge is an important tool, but is a silver bullet? We may be able to try it in the next few months if we continue to get a good snowpack," he said. "I won't support it without compensation for those who give up water for such purposes."

Related Sites:
Idaho Constitution, Article 15 - Water Rights

Pat McCoy is based in Boise.
Otter Vows to Protect Idaho Water
Capital Press, February 2, 2007

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