Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Legacy Project gets Idaho Senate approval

House Resources Committee shown bill Tuesday

Express Staff Writer

The Wood River Legacy Project, which is seeking to increase flows in the Big Wood River and Silver Creek systems, continues to gain momentum in the Idaho Legislature.

The proposed legislation was unanimously approved by the Senate on Friday and was slated to receive a hearing in the House Resources Committee on Tuesday. If passed by the committee it will receive a hearing in the full House.

"I'm extraordinarily pleased and relieved to have it pass the Senate by that kind of a margin and I look forward to seeing how well it can be implemented to benefit fish and wildlife and recreation as well as downstream irrigators," Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, said Monday.

Stennett, who is a sponsor of the bill, has been trying to pass similar legislation for several years.

As first proposed, the bill—SB-1136—initially angered farmers and ranchers in the Bellevue Triangle who argued that it would diminish their water supplies and reduce flows in Silver Creek. Compounding the irrigators' concerns was suspicion over the true intentions of the project's director for Idaho Rivers United and other local interests, Rich McIntyre, who owns his own consulting business.

But under pressure from the Triangle irrigators the bill underwent a series of major revisions last month and the concerns were alleviated.

"The political process really worked," said Andy Munter, a Ketchum resident and president of Idaho Rivers United's board of directors, a conservation group that backed the project from the beginning. "We listened to opponents and found compromises and something that works for us and the water users. We knew we had to work with people on the ground and that's what we did."

McIntyre, who lives in Hailey, launched the project over 18 months ago. It originally sought to add flows just to the Big Wood River—specifically a 12-mile stretch south of Bellevue that runs dry most of the year—by giving water rights holders the opportunity to keep some or all of their water in stream. Current Idaho water law forces people to take all of their allotted water or risk losing their rights to it, a policy known as "use it or lose it."

While the legislation is still on pace to change the "use it or lose it" clause in the Big Wood basin, the way the water will be dispersed has changed.

Due to the Triangle irrigators' concerns, most of the water that does get donated will now go to Silver Creek, not the Big Wood River.

All donated water north of Bellevue will be placed in the District 45 Canal, which diverts water from the Big Wood River in Bellevue east into the Triangle. Water donated below that point will be allowed to go into the Big Wood River channel, which is highly porous south of Bellevue. And a local committee that will oversee the donations will be comprised of advisory board members from District 37 and 37M, which has jurisdiction over the Big and Little Wood river systems.

"(The bill) has gone through numerous changes to insure all interests are represented and that the bill is well vetted," McIntyre wrote in a prepared statement he planned to deliver to the House committee on Tuesday. "You have before you a bill that protects and enhances the agricultural use of water while concurrently aiding stream flows. In brief, it works for all the people of the basin."

Still, there are unanswered questions about whether the project will harm water users. For that reason, the bill will have a sunset clause of five years, meaning it can be removed from law at that time if it proves injurious.

Furthermore, many people have claimed that there will never be enough water donated to actually make a difference. Munter said that won't be known until after the project is implemented in 2008.

"The mechanism is the real important thing to find out what's out there," he said.

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