Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Minimum streamflow appeal dropped

Big Wood Canal Co. pressure cited at Sun Valley Center lecture

Express Staff Writer

The Big Wood River flows through Hailey. Photo by Mountain Express

Water is known as the "universal solvent" because it combines so readily with so many different elements.

A universal interest in this natural resource in southern Idaho has led to a collaboration between farmers and environmentalists to keep water in the Big Wood River.

Only time will tell if this relationship is merely a marriage of convenience.

In July, the Idaho Department of Water Resources issued a ruling enforcing a minimum streamflow right, requiring that at least 189 cubic feet per second be left in the Big Wood River at the Hailey water gauge.

The department ruled that an 1883 water right sold upstream recently by the Rohe family from the Hiawatha Canal to a buyer in the Gimlet subdivision south of Ketchum was subordinate to a 1983 minimum streamflow right held by the Idaho Water Resources Board.

Environmentalists cheered the ruling, as did the Blaine County Commission and the city of Bellevue. The ruling reshaped water rights policy in Idaho, which had held that "first in time means first in line."

"Where has the department been on this issue for the last 27 years?" asked Hailey Councilman Fritz Haemmerle, who is also the attorney for the Rohe family.

In addition to his role as an attorney, Haemmerle has been working to shore up water rights for Hailey. He has played a leading role in acquiring "senior" water rights from the 1880s to protect the city's water supply for irrigation.

Hailey's municipal wells have priority dates from the 1970s and therefore are vulnerable during drought periods from more senior water rights holders, especially big agricultural interests in Lincoln County associated with the Big Wood Canal Co.

A "call" by senior water rights holders during dry periods could shut down irrigation uses in Hailey.

Haemmerle mounted an appeal of the decision, which he said would reduce the ability of cities to acquire reliable water rights for irrigation.

"I don't mind my lawn going dry, but I wonder how they will feel in Hailey, Ketchum or Sun Valley," he said.

By contrast, Bellevue City Administrator Tom Blanchard arranged for the city to send a letter to the Department of Water Resources congratulating it on its decision. He told the City Council that due to demands on the river for irrigation purposes, the Big Wood had run dry several times in the last 30 years, killing fish and everything else that lived in the river.

At Blanchard's suggestion, and with the support from the Wood River Irrigation District 45 Canal Co., the city was poised to intervene to support the ruling at an expected appeal hearing. It was thought that those who could benefit from unencumbered water rights transfers, including municipalities and "estate lot" irrigators in the upscale north valley, would join to fight the ruling.

It turns out their worries were unfounded. This week the appeal was dropped.

"Nobody joined the Rohe side," Haemmerle said. "My client didn't feel like carrying the oar by himself for this issue."

Dave Tuthill, former director of the Department of Water Resources, spoke frankly about disputes over water at a panel discussion organized by the Sun Valley Center for the Arts on Thursday, Oct. 14. He addressed the issue of "conjunctive management," which he described as "the great upheaval" heading our way.

Conjunctive management is an innovative regulatory practice that manages surface water, used for irrigation, along with groundwater, or well-pumping rights. When priority dates of the two kinds of water rights are managed together, the well user typically loses if the water is used for "consumptive uses," such as watering lawns, or golf courses.

Senior water rights decreed to farmers in southern Blaine County many years ago have become a hot commodity for sale to private homeowners in the north county in recent years, in part to prepare for conjunctive management, expected to come to the valley in the next few years.

Cities can offset the effects of conjunctive management by buying senior rights from downstream and mitigating, by putting that water back into the ground or into the Big Wood River. But the recent minimum-streamflow ruling is expected to put a damper on the sale of senior water rights that may not be as reliable as before.

Tuthill said Thursday that the Department of Water Resources, which regulates water rights in Idaho, gets a letter every year from the Big Wood Canal Co. complaining that it's not getting all of its water.

"They have a perfectly valid complaint," Tuthill said.

Tuthill also said there are hundreds of illegal water users in the northern Wood River Valley, particularly in and around Ketchum and Sun Valley. He said the department has sent letters of warning to those watering more than two acres, and would send out letters soon to those using more than half an acre, the allowable limit for residential irrigation.

Many north valley water users, including Sun Valley Resort, which has to water two golf courses, are preparing for conjunctive management.

"We're already living it," said Pat McMahon, manager of the Sun Valley Water and Sewer District.

He is charged with providing the water used to irrigate the Elkhorn Golf Course, which pumps water from wells with priority dates beginning in the 1930s. Many rights from the south date from the 1880s.

In response to conjunctive management, McMahon is working on a plan to deliver reused water from the Ketchum and Sun Valley wastewater treatment plant for the golf course irrigation. There would be no restrictions on the use of reclaimed water, he said.

"I would like to have it in place by this time next year," McMahon said.

Kathryn Goldman, a Bellevue resident and former biologist with the Wood River Land Trust, also spoke Thursday at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts.

"The health of the floodplain rests upon you and on me and all of us," she said.

Hydrologist Wendy Pabich said at the event, "We are using water at an unsustainable rate in the valley."

Tuthill agreed, saying "there is just not enough water to go around."

For the time being, what is good news for fish and other organisms in the Big Wood River in the south valley is also good news for big agricultural irrigators in southern Idaho. But those same canal companies, some of which use water on Lincoln County farms, could find they are at odds with cities from Bellevue to Sun Valley in the near future.

"You see a coalition between the canal companies and cities over this right now, but this is a short-term alliance for specific purposes," Blanchard said. "When we get into conjunctive management things could change."

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