Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Stennett pushes bill to expand water rights for conservation uses

Express Staff Writer

Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, wants to see a day when Idaho water rights holders may be able to leave their water in a stream or rent their water rights to maintain instream flows.

Senate Bill 1116, introduced Friday, Feb. 11, by Stennett would enable conservation groups to rent water to junior stream landowners, and provide for increased in-stream flows.

The bill states, "Historically, the appropriation of natural flow water rights from Idaho rivers and streams has affected stream flows, natural recharge of interconnected ground water aquifers, water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and other values"

This is the second time Stennett has introduced a similar bill.

"Given all the other water shortage issues it's certainly an appropriate time (to reintroduce it)," he said, Tuesday. "It's a matter of keeping it in play while these other water issues are in front of lawmakers."

Currently, there is no legal authority that ensures that water rented by conservation organizations or landowners is left in the streams and rivers. Under current rules, a landowner down river can freely use untapped water if the senior water rights holder above him declines to make use it.

Stennett said this bill would "build partnerships between ranchers who want to rent their water and conservationist who want to keep adequate water levels in our rivers and streams. As an ancillary benefit, this measure would also provide for recharge from our rivers and streams into our the over-stretched Snake River Plain Aquifer."

"Montana, Washington and Oregon have similar bills. Western states are coming to this, albeit reluctantly," Stennett said. "When the Idaho Constitution was written conservation wasn't contemplated. Subsequently, there is a use or lose it mentality. This bill proposes a mechanism to allow conservation groups and landowners to use their water rights for conservation. It's totally voluntary."

The Idaho Department of Water Resources, water users and Idaho Rivers United are currently in talks with Stennett regarding the bill.

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