by Don Hale
"Thou shalt not covet thy neighor's goods..."
Throughout the arid West, Idaho is envied for its working waters.
Idaho's rivers, most notably the Snake, provide many benefits for Idaho and its residents. We use it to light our cities, irrigate our crops, provide sustenance for our fish and wildlife and relax our souls.
For generations, Idaho politicians have won election and re-election by promising to protect the state's water. Over the years, in Idaho and other western states, a large body of state law has been built up to regulate water rights, usage and distribution. Congress has recognized that the individual western states had highly localized situations calling for differing regulations, and traditionally has deferred to the states in water law.
That tradition is in danger.
A new program in the Farm bill currently under consideration by Congress would ignore state water laws and would allow water rights to be transferred to the federal government without any input from the state.
Actually an enlargement of the existing Conservation Reserve Program, the new law would allow the Secretary of Agriculture to acquire water rights for unproven benefits to fish and wildlife. This could be done without such state-law requirements as considering potential injury to other water rights and a determination of whether the change is in the local public interest.
Under Idaho law, an agricultural water right cannot be converted into instream flow. The new program ignores that principle, too.
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a state not overly burdened with irrigated agriculture, introduced the so-called Water Conservation Program. The program would have the potential to acquire for the government the rights to water for more than a million acres of productive western farmland.
The Conservation Reserve Program has been good for wildlife and, generally, good for farmers. It allows the federal governmnet to rent private farm ground and leave it uncultivated to proide wildlife habitat. The farmer forgoes the potential income from crops and is repaid by the government for having done so. Under the proposed program, however, the farmer could be required to cede his water rights to the government as a part of the price for participating.
Almost beside the point is the fact that more instream flow doesn't necessarily mean better things for wildlife. For example for the past decade, Idaho - under state law - has voluntarily allowed 427,000 acre-feet of water to go down the Snake each year as part of an Endangered Species Act program for salmon and steelhead. The water comes from willing sellers. There is no evidence to be found, however, that a single fish has benefited.
There's some evidence, however, that those pushing for the new conservation program knew it would generate controversy. That's the reason for its late-night introduction and why, so far, there has not been one public hearing on it.
Even assuming that the plan would have some benefits, it isn't necessary. Idaho's annual 427,000 acre-foot contribution is just one of many examples throughout the west of ways to accomplish the same objectives under state law.
Idaho's U.S. Senators and Governor Kempthorne have come out strongly against this program. They recognize how precious Idaho's water is to our economy and lifestyle. They understand that rights are precious and that, once ceded, might never be regained.
Idaho has had a long history of fighting to defend its water. There have been proposals to pump it south to the Colorado River basin, or to transport it from the mouth of the Columbia to southern California. This is the latest battle, but it's different. This is part of a thinly veiled attempt to eliminate all productivity from public resources, a kind of back-to-nature theology that contradicts the philosophy that made America successful.
Help defend Idaho's water. Write your Senators and Representatives. Tell them to oppose this ill-concieved program and keep our working waters doing their many jobs.
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