Friday, August 18, 2006

Water theft running rampant in valley

Deputy Water Master blows whistle; cites greed for blatant violations

Express Staff Writer

Deputy Water Master David Murphy shuts off water Monday to a canal along the East Fork of the Big Wood River. Two days later, he said, a chain locking the canal headgate had been cut to illegally restore flows. Photo by Willy Cook

People in the Wood River Valley basin are blatantly stealing water in copious amounts to keep their lawns green and their private fish ponds full, according to David W. Murphy, deputy water master of District 37.

"Welcome to Sun Valley. This is typical America, the land of greed, where people just take, take, take," said Murphy, who along with Water Master Kevin Lakey is responsible for managing the distribution of water from the Sawtooth National Recreation Area south to Timmerman Hill. "There are so many (people stealing) up here. It's a runaway problem."

With summer winding down and water levels in the Big Wood River dropping, Murphy's been forced to shut off water to some users to ensure the precious commodity reaches senior water right holders downstream. This week, he shut off flows—via canal head gates—to everyone with water rights dated later than 1884.

"I have a responsibility to deliver water to its rightful owners," Murphy said.

But his actions have been greeted with hostility and threats of legal action.

"With the farmers, it's 'Yes sir, no sir.' They respect the law," Murphy said. "Up here, people get mad and call their lawyers, and I get all these sharks after me."

There are four major canals in the Wood River Valley stretching from Starweather—in the middle valley—south to the Bellevue Triangle. But according to Murphy's calculations, there are more than a hundred smaller, unnamed canals that snake onto private properties and spill into manmade ponds that are often used illegally for irrigation.

On Wednesday, Murphy checked several canal headgates, which are like mini dams that control the flow of water out of streams and into canals. Some were ones he'd shut two days earlier. The headgates are manually operated and secured by a chain and padlock.

"Oh, man," Murphy said as he checked the headgate on a canal along the East Fork of the Big Wood River. "Look what someone did."

With water flowing through the canal that he had shut just 48 hours earlier, Murphy held up the chain and pointed to a link that had been cut to remove the padlock.

Murphy said he thinks he knows who was responsible—a nearby homeowner had been complaining that the reduced flows were drying up his ponds—but that he would probably not issue a citation.

"If I did that, I'd have to arrest the whole valley," he said, shaking his head. "I feel like I'm just chasing smoke."

Murphy reattached the lock to another chain and headed farther out East Fork Road to another property, where a pump was apparently being installed to extract water from a canal-fed pond.

Murphy said the owner is allowed to have a pond, but using the water to irrigate his property—mainly an enormous field of rich bluegrass—is illegal. That, however, hasn't deterred many people from digging deeper ponds, installing ponds, and using water to keep their yards pretty, he said.

"Eighty percent of people with ponds are violating their decrees," Murphy said. "It seems to me people with money just do what they want. Meanwhile, the farmers suffer."

Rocky Sherbine, who owns a farm south of Bellevue near Baseline Road, said the water supply to farmers has been shrinking over the years, mainly because of drought. But he said as trophy homes become increasingly prevalent around Ketchum, "more and more water is being used up there."

Sherbine said it's not as noticeable during high water years, such as this, but during dry years farmers are forced to dip into their deep wells, which depletes the aquifer.

"I would like to see all the water users up north that shouldn't be using water taken care of," Sherbine said.

But enforcing the law is no easy task.

"It's overwhelming," Murphy said. "I'm trying to do the best I can."

Murphy and Lakey, who could not be reached for comment, are the only two full-time employees at the Water Master Department, which is funded by the water users via an assessment fee. As a result, enforcement issues are somewhat sticky. In effect, they're enforcing regulations on people who pay their salaries.

While Murphy, who said he earns about $26,000 a year, and Lakey often operate independently on a day-to-day basis, they have to answer to the Idaho Department of Water Resources, which is the ultimate authority on water issues statewide.

Murphy was somewhat critical of IDWR, claiming it is often slow to respond to reports of violations and that the agency should be supplying more manpower to the Wood River Valley.

Allen Merritt, IDWR's southern region manager in Twin Falls, said Murphy and Lakey "are authorized to curtail or administer the water rights that are decreed."

But Meritt did acknowledge that manpower to assist Murphy and Lakey is in short supply due to the Snake River Basin Adjudication process—a massive undertaking meant to settle and update all water right claims throughout the Snake River basin. The process, which IDWR has been directing for more than 20 years, is nearing completion. Only Twin Falls and Blaine County remain incomplete.

"Right now, there are not enough staff members to go out there and police (water users)," Merritt said. "Once the adjudication is complete, we'll maybe have the tools in place to look into these things a little more closely."

Violators can be hit with a variety of fines, Merritt said, but most are in the range of a few hundred dollars.

"In the Big Wood area with all the big trophy homes ... that penalty is not all that great," Merritt said. "So people run the risk."

Murphy, who is in his second year as the deputy water master, graduated from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in ornamental horticulture. In the late 1990s, he was an agricultural inspector in one of the most intensive farming regions in California, the Pajaro Valley in Monterey County.

The Monterey County Herald published a story about Murphy in 1997, which highlighted the dedication and commitment he had for his job.

"I have this eye," he told the Herald. "If there's anything out of the ordinary, I'll find it right away. If I see someone harvesting too soon after a field has been sprayed, I'll issue a cease and desist."

Murphy said he thinks he could lose his job for speaking up. But he said he can no longer watch silently as people break the law.

"Every job I do, I try to do it well," he said. "The truth has to come out. I don't care what people think of me.

"I can't just go somewhere knowing what I know and leave you all behind."

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