Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Water rights donations trickle in

Donations for Wood River Legacy Project will take effect this summer

Express Staff Writer

Rich McIntyre

In what amounts to a milestone for the Wood River Legacy Project, applications for donating water to the Big Wood River or Silver Creek for conservation purposes are beginning to trickle in.

"This is really history being made," said Rich McIntyre, director of the Legacy Project.

The purpose of the project is to enhance streamflows on both the Big Wood River and Silver Creek through the voluntary donation of water rights during the irrigation season. Water rights holders can donate their rights for as little as one year, while still preserving their ownership of the water right and the historic priority date of that right. Aside from the area covered by the Legacy Project, Idaho water law requires people to use all of their allotted water or risk losing their rights to it, a policy known as "use it or lose it."

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter signed legislation permitting the donations in March 2007.

"That's new. That's never been done in Idaho before," McIntyre said.

Speaking Tuesday, McIntyre said the Legacy Project will be a test case for Idaho. He said many people around the state will be watching to see how successfully the project is implemented.

"If it can work here it can work in other places," he said.

McIntyre, a member of a local committee charged with choosing water rights donations for the project, said the committee is now accepting applications from water rights holders.

"I have a short stack of them on my desk," he said.

He said the local Legacy Project committee—comprised of eight members of local water districts 37 and 37M, three additional members of the Wood River Legacy Project board besides McIntyre and Kathryn Goldman of the Wood River Land Trust—will make a decision on the first round of water rights applications sometime in May. For now, he said there's no way to know how much water will end up being diverted to the Big Wood River and Silver Creek this summer.

McIntyre said that even four to five cubic feet per second of water redirected to the Big Wood River or Silver Creek would be beneficial. He noted that the Big Wood dropped below 100 cfs last summer.

The legislation places the ultimate decision on the donated water rights in the hands of Idaho Department of Water Resources Director David Tuthill.

"We make our recommendation to the director," McIntyre said.

As first proposed, the bill—SB 1136—initially angered farmers and ranchers in the Bellevue Triangle, who contended it would diminish their water supplies and reduce flows in nearby Silver Creek, whose aquifer depends partly on flows in an irrigation canal. Under pressure from those irrigators, the Legislature made major revisions to the bill, including a requirement that water donated above the irrigation canal be directed through it.

McIntyre said he's been contacted by about 15 to 20 water rights holders in the area who have expressed interest in donating their water rights. He said he expects additional applications to continue to arrive in the mail during the next few weeks.

During an informational meeting on the Legacy Project in Hailey last week, several dozen people filled a room to hear McIntyre explain how donating water rights will take place.

"It is a donation to the state water board to hold your water right in trust," he said.

McIntyre admitted the project may require some fine tuning as it proceeds.

"It's going to take some tweaking," he said. "We're blazing some new ground here."

Under the legislation, state legislators enacted a five-year sunset clause for the Legacy Project. That means water rights holders can only donate their rights for up to four years for now.

McIntyre launched the project several years 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 instream.

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