Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Governor signs Wood River Legacy Project into law

Groundbreaking legislation could add water to Silver Creek system

Express Staff Writer

Both Silver Creek, in the Bellevue Triangle area near Picabo, above, and the Big Wood River could end up receiving additional water flows if basin water rights holders agree to donate their water as part of the recently approved Wood River Legacy Project legislation. Last Thursday, Idaho Gov. C.L. ?Butch? Otter signed the bill into law. Photo by David N. Seelig

The much-heralded Wood River Legacy Project officially became the law of the land Thursday afternoon when Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter signed the legislation.

The governor's signing of the bill, whose purpose is to increase flows in the Big Wood River and Silver Creek systems through protected donations of water, follows the legislation's unanimous passage in the Idaho Senate and House of Representatives in March.

But for all its predicted impacts on the Wood River and Silver Creek systems, Otter signed the legislation with little if any fanfare, Jon Hanian, the governor's press secretary, said Friday, March 30.

"He did sign that yesterday," Hanian said.

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 and the concerns were generally alleviated by the time it was presented to the state Legislature.

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

On Friday, McIntyre predicted a positive future for the waterways impacted by the legislation.

"A new day dawns for streams in the Wood Basin," McIntyre said.

The passage of the Wood River Legacy Project is the first time a conservation-oriented bill has ever received unanimous support in the both the Idaho Senate and House of Representatives, McIntyre said.

"That's an important fact," he said. "I think it's a new day for bipartisan politics here in Idaho."

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."

Because the legislation doesn't take official effect until 2008, the full impact of the Wood River Legacy Project likely won't be known for at least several years.

Still, here's what is known about the legislation:

- Through a principal change in "use it or lose it" 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 the priority dates of their water rights.

- Due to the concerns of irrigators in the Bellevue Triangle, 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 would be allowed to go into the Big Wood River channel, which is highly porous south of Bellevue.

- A local committee that will oversee the donations will be composed of advisory board members from District 37 and 37M, which has jurisdiction over the Big and Little Wood river systems.

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

Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, was the Wood River Legacy Project's Senate sponsor, while Donna Pence, D-Gooding, was the bill's House sponsor.

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