Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Water dispute threatens project

Developer hopes to restore 12 miles of spring-fed stream in Bellevue Triangle

Express Staff Writer

A dispute over water rights in the Bellevue Triangle threatens to derail the spending of $430,000 in federal stimulus funds approved for a unique stream restoration project next to the Big Wood River.

At issue is whether the approximately $4 million project—which seeks to restore 12 miles of spring-fed stream on the Crystal Creek Ranch degraded by grazing—will harm neighboring water users both upstream and downstream of the property. On Tuesday, the Blaine County Commission heard testimony from backers of the project—including ranch owner and local developer George Kirk—who claim that the restoration activities will in no way harm the delivery of water to neighboring ranches.

The commissioners also heard vociferous opposition to the project from many neighboring landowners. Among its many goals, the restoration is intended to return the streams to a more meandering and natural state that allows aquatic life to thrive.

State and federal wildlife officials as well as nonprofit groups like Trout Unlimited back the project.

The hearing about two applications—one a stream alteration permit and the other a conditional use permit—drew a standing-room-only crowd to the upstairs meeting room at the Old Blaine County Courthouse. Rarely do such applications draw more than a few interested observers, County Commissioner Larry Schoen noted dryly.

"This is undoubtedly the biggest turnout the county has ever seen for a stream alteration permit," Schoen said.

The county approved a 38-lot development application for the ranch in 2008.

The applications that must be approved to allow the project to move forward are not tied to just any ranch. The 1,619-acre property—once known as the Diamond Dragon Ranch—has the oldest water rights in Blaine County, dating back to 1880.

Because of that, decisions related to water use on the ranch have a way of catching the ear of just about every water rights holder in the Big Wood drainage.

The first phase of the project seeks to construct 12 "wetland cells" along the existing irrigation ditches that wind through the large property. Project backers say the pools would let the ranch's water managers use water for irrigation in a more efficient way.

The ranch is located northeast of the blinking traffic light where state Highway 75 meets U.S. Highway 20 at Timmerman Junction.

Kirk, the local development company that controls the property, Sun Valley Ranch LLC, already has the necessary permits and approvals from state and federal agencies to move forward on the first phase. Not approved yet is a water-rights transfer request that would allow additional restoration work to begin.

Kirk is asking the county to approve both phases of the restoration project, which would also include the excavation of large "oxbow" features parallel to the spring-fed streams that drain the ranch in a second phase. It's this aspect of the project that will require approval of the water-rights transfer by the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

Kirk said the work on the deep oxbow features by excavation equipment won't begin until the department grants those requests. Local landowners surrounding the ranch expressed concerns that creation of these pools could disrupt underground water flows. Multiple speakers said changing the historical water-use patterns could either dry up or even flood portions of their land.

It's this question—whether the changes would illegally harm neighboring landowners—that Department of Water Resources officials will have to decide, Kirk said. He urged the commissioners to expedite their decision so the first phase of the project can proceed during this calendar year.

Kirk said not allowing the project to begin by the end of 2009 would mean the loss of those stimulus funds, which will pay nearly half the $1 million cost of the first phase. He said neighboring water users have nothing to fear with the first phase, which relies on existing water rights held by the ranch.

"The first phase of the project can go forward without a water rights transfer," he said.

In the end, the commissioners will have to decide what role they play in the approval process. Neighboring landowners clearly want the commission to delay their decision until hearing from Department of Water Resources officials.

"There has to be evidence that there is no adverse affect of any kind," said Sharon Lee, whose family has owned the Wood River Ranch just to the north for 30 years.

In the end, the commission set its next meeting on the topic for Friday, Aug. 28, at 9:30 a.m. They instructed county staff to look into which portions of the application they could approve without the Department of Water Resources' decision on the water rights transfer.

Jason Kauffman:

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