Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Legacy Project sails through Idaho House

Legislation now goes to governor for signing

Express Staff Writer

Donna Pence

The Wood River Legacy Project, designed to increase flows in the Big Wood River and Silver Creek systems, gained unanimous passage in the Idaho House of Representatives late Tuesday afternoon.

With its unanimous approval March 9 in the Senate, the legislation now goes to the desk of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter in its final step to become law.

Minutes after its passage, Idaho Rivers United Conservation Director Kevin Lewis praised the legislation's successful journey through the Legislature. Passage of the Legacy Project happened because people from across the Wood River Valley were willing to listen to one another, he said.

"It's a great collaborative process where you had a lot of diverse stakeholders working together both up-basin and down-basin," he said.

Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, the Legacy Project's House sponsor, agreed. She said supporters of the legislation ensured passage of the bill because of their thorough education of House legislators.

"If you're going to get something done, you really need to talk to people," Pence said Tuesday.

Supporters of the Wood River Legacy Project addressed legislators' concerns at every step along the way, she said.

"I don't think they could find anything wrong with it," Pence said. "I thought it was really fantastic that we didn't have any no votes on it."

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 intentions of some of the project's backers.

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

Hailey resident Rich McIntyre, who owns his own consulting business, was one of the project's key promoters.

McIntyre launched the project over 18 months ago with the backing of Idaho Rivers United. 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 use all of their allotted water or risk losing their rights to it, a policy known as "use it or lose it."

Through a principal change in that doctrine under this new legislation, Big Wood Basin water rights holders who choose to donate their water to the Legacy Project to keep it in stream won't lose their priority dates.

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

All donated water north of Bellevue would 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 would be allowed to go into the Big Wood River channel, which is highly porous south of Bellevue. And a local committee that would oversee the donations would be composed of advisory board members from District 37 and 37M, which has jurisdiction over the Big and Little Wood river systems.

In a prepared statement he planned to deliver to the subcommittee that sent it on to the full House last week, McIntyre said the bill went through numerous changes to insure all interests are represented.

"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," McIntyre wrote.

The new law, if signed, won't go into effect until 2008. Also, since there are still unanswered questions about whether the project will harm water users, the law has a sunset clause of five years, meaning it can be removed from law at that time if it proves injurious.

On Tuesday, McIntyre said the Legacy Project steering committee will be sitting down with Otter on Thursday to discuss the legislation. Noting the bill's unanimous passage by both the Senate and House, he predicted Otter would likely sign the legislation.

Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, was the Wood River Legacy Project's Senate sponsor.

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