Water Rights Sale Moves Closerby Dave Wilkins, Idaho Staff Writer
Capital Press, March 22, 2005
Sugar beet acres transferred
HAGERMAN, Idaho -- Big changes are in store for farmers in the Bell Rapids Mutual Irrigation Co. if a proposed sale of their water rights is completed this spring as expected.
The irrigation company agreed last week to sell its surface water rights to the state for $22.5 million. If the deal goes through, it would permanently dry up about 25,000 acres in Twin Falls County.
The deal would be unprecedented, the first time the state has purchased water rights from farmers rather than issued them.
The Idaho Legislature must appropriate funds for the water board to make the purchase. A clear title must also be transferred to the state before the deal is finalized.
Bell Rapids would receive $16 million in cash at closing. The remainder would be paid in annual interest-free installments over five years.
The agreement could free up water for flow augmentation or as mitigation to other surface water users who have experienced reduced flows on the Snake River.
It's one of several actions taken this year by Idaho leaders trying to cope with a sixth straight year of drought.
"This agreement helps us fulfill the terms of the Snake River Basin Adjudication, while providing flow augmentation during this severe drought year," Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said in a statement.
State Senate Pro-Tem Bob Geddes of Soda Springs said the agreement, "represents progress in a tough, tough water year. It goes a long way in mitigating some of the water concerns on the Snake River Plain."
Bell Rapids is a high-lift irrigation project with rights to about 99,000 acre feet of water per year.
Completion of the sale would effectively end crop production on the tract. Farmers would retain ownership of their land, but they couldn't irrigate crops anymore.
The deal wouldn't prevent farmers from using their land for dryland grazing or enrolling it in government set-aside programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program.
Farming on the Bell Rapids tract has become much more expensive in recent years, in part because of higher power costs. The project pumps water out of the Snake River, delivering it to farmground several hundred feet above the river.
Bell Rapids submitted a proposal to sell its water rights after the state water board issued an invitation to consider such offers late last year.
While Bell Rapids farmers have been reluctant to discuss the sale prior to its completion, many have been proceeding as if the deal will go through.
Of the 3,400 acres of sugar beets grown on the tract, about half have been transferred to other growing areas in the Magic Valley, Amalgamated Sugar Co. officials said this week.
"There's a real effort at this point to see if we can place the rest of the acres," said Vic Jaro, the company's vice president for agriculture. "At least half the acres have already been moved."
Amalgamated gets its beets from the Snake River Sugar Co., a grower-owned cooperative. Co-op members are obligated to deliver an acre of beets for every share of stock they own.
The shift in sugar beet acres has been accomplished on a temporary transfer basis, Jaro said. If the water rights sale goes through, growers will have to make those transfers permanent, perhaps by selling or leasing their co-op shares to other farmers.
There's a slim chance that some beets could still be grown on the tract this year.
If the Legislature fails to appropriate money for the water rights purchase by March 31, Bell Rapids irrigators can unilaterally terminate the deal.
Jaro said growers could still make a decent beet crop if they planted on April 1.
Beets have been grown on Bell Rapids for many years.
"They've always been good growers," Jaro said. "We're certainly going to miss them."
The sale is expected to be completed by May 1 if the Legislature comes through with the funding.
Bells Rapids agreed not to sue the state in the event the sale falls through and producers are prevented from starting farming operations this year in a timely manner.
To read the letter of intent between the Bell Rapids district and the state water board, visit the Idaho Department of Water Resources website at www.idwr.state.id.us.
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