Friday, February 16, 2007

Dispute threatens key Bellevue water right

Annexation proposals could wither in face of water debates

Express Staff Writer

A dispute over a portion of Bellevue?s water rights threatens to slow down or even derail three separate annexation applications the city is considering. The dispute concerns 1885 water rights owned by Bellevue. The city pulls those water rights from springs located on the Ee-da-ho Ranch east of town in Muldoon Canyon, above. Photo by David N. Seelig

A possible dispute over water rights in the Bellevue area could derail three separate annexation applications and even place a question mark over an important source of city water if it isn't resolved.

The issue concerns one of Bellevue's primary water sources.

Located on the privately-owned Ee-da-ho Ranch east of town, the water source is a series of springs found on the upper portion of the scenic Muldoon Canyon ranch.

An underground gravity-fed pipeline carries water from the springs down to a large municipal water tank located on a hill east of town.

The current issue has its beginnings in a 1985 agreement between the city of Bellevue and the former owners of the Ee-da-ho Ranch, James and Donna West.

Many years earlier, in a 1920 agreement between the city and the then-owners of the property, Bellevue exchanged city water rights in nearby Seamans Creek for the same amount of water originating from springs found on a lower section of the ranch.

The 1885 rights provide Bellevue with 3 cubic feet per second of water and are its oldest and most significant water right.

Years later, in the mid-1980s, a city investigation determined that coliform—essentially spore-producing bacteria that can originate in grazing livestock—had contaminated the water source.

As a way to resolve the contamination issue, Bellevue and the Wests reached an agreement in April 1985 giving the city the ability to draw its 1885 water right from separate springs located on an upper section of the ranch where contamination was unlikely. The agreement also permitted the ranch owners to continue to draw water for irrigation purposes as their own water rights allow.

But rather than fixing the city's water issues, the signing of the agreement actually led to the problem Bellevue is attempting to correct.

According to the ranch's former owners, the Wests, the city in signing the 1985 agreement not only gave up its rights to draw water from the lower spring, but actually abandoned its 1885 water right altogether.

That is not the case, said Fritz Haemmerle, a Hailey attorney working as a water rights consultant for Bellevue.

"It makes no sense," Haemmerle said Thursday.

In a section of the 1985 agreement that has been called into question, Bellevue agreed to abandon to "West and his successors" interest in both the lands where the lower springs are located and "all of the waters of the springs."

The Wests incorrectly seized upon the reference to all of the spring's water to mean the city's actual water right, Haemmerle said. In reality, this section only refers to water emanating from the lower springs on the Ee-da-ho Ranch, not the city's 1885 water right.

"They took a rather draconian view of what that contract states," Haemmerle said. "They (the Wests) take the opinion that we abandoned our water right. I don't think that's what it says."

The issue now rests with the new owner of the ranch, Wood River Valley resident Alvin Shoemaker. The city has been in discussions with Shoemaker trying to determine if he takes the same position as that of the Wests.

While Shoemaker hasn't made his position on the issue known, Haemmerle is confident the city will be protected.

"He (Shoemaker) seems like a very agreeable person," Haemmerle said.

Still, the issue is significant and needs to be resolved, he said. Failing that, the three separate annexation applications for nearly 660 acres in the city should not go forward, Haemmerle said.

Each of the applicants, Ketchum developer Jeff Pfaeffle and Wood River Valley landowners Harry Rinker and John Scherer, have requested the city use its own domestic water to service their properties. Without a resolution to the water rights issue, the three annexations could place too much of a burden on city water, Haemmerle said.

"I think something has to be resolved," he said. "I'm hopeful we can."

Haemmerle isn't the only Bellevue official concerned about the potential water rights issue.

At a meeting several weeks ago, City Council members discussed the potentially problematic Muldoon Canyon water source.

At the meeting, Haemmerle advised the council to delay making a decision on any pending annexation applications until the Ee-da-ho Ranch water rights issue is resolved.

"I think it would be a mistake to agree to any annexation application," Haemmerle said.

Haemmerle's recommendation found a receptive audience in the City Council.

"Until we get over that stumbling block, nothing matters," Councilman Shaun Mahoney said.

Following Haemmerle's advice, the council voted unanimously to delay any decision on the pending annexation applications until the water issue is resolved.

"If it's not resolved, we're not going to be able to move forward at all," Councilwoman Beth Robrahn said.

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