Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Hailey to raise water fees

Mayor warns of possible threat to supply

Express Staff Writer

    Hailey officials plan to raise water fees this summer to pay for expected engineering costs, legal fees and the possible future purchase or lease of water rights. They say the money will be necessary to protect the municipal irrigation supply from downstream senior-water-rights holders, including the Big Wood Canal Co. based in Gooding.
    A public hearing on the proposed fee rate structure will be scheduled for July, city officials said.
    “There will be a rate increase. We need to defend ourselves in one way or another,” said Mayor Fritz Haemmerle during a City Council meeting Monday.
    Several Hailey residents protested raising fees during a discussion on the issue. Tom Swenson called a proposed 29 percent hike, along with increased rates for larger lots under irrigation, “hugely punitive.”
    Haemmerle defended the fee increase, saying it would ensure that Hailey residents’ lawns and parks do not “go brown” in the future.
    “Water calls could potentially shut down our non-potable water supply in the future,” Haemmerle said.
    Haemmerle said the fee increase would fund the cost of developing and implementing a mitigation plan in case  a “call” from senior-water-rights holders causes the city to curtail water pumping from four wells it uses for irrigation.
    The city pumps water during summer from four municipal wells with priority dates from the 1970s. Under conjunctive management, expected to come to the valley by 2015, use of the wells could be curtailed to preserve water for water-rights holders with priority dates going back as far as the 1880s, many of whom live many miles away to the south.
    The U.S. Geological Survey and the Idaho Department of Water Resources began in April a modeling plan to determine the impacts that well pumping in the Wood River Valley has on surface-water-rights users whose rights are much older, and therefore have priority under state law. The model is scheduled for completion in 2015.

During a short water year, there could be a call, once the
[groundwater flow] model is finished.”

Lynn Harmon
General manager
Big Wood Canal Co.

    “During a short water year there could be a call, once the model is finished,” said Big Wood Canal Co. general manager Lynn Harmon in an interview. “But as long as there is adequate water supply, there won’t be a call on anybody.”
    Harmon said a similar groundwater flow model was developed on the eastern Snake River Plain, where he said cities established water curtailment plans.
    Harmon said that to his knowledge no municipal wells used for irrigation or household use were shut down in that area.
    “Municipalities have pretty good protection under state law,” he said.
    The Idaho Department of Water Resources would have jurisdiction over if and when municipal irrigation sources are curtailed, he said.
    Harmon said some “money changed hands” on the Snake River Plain when seasonal water leases were purchased from other sources, and payments were made to senior-water-rights holders to mitigate potential damages.
    Haemmerle said Monday that the proposed increase in water service fees in Hailey would be used to survey the entire municipal water system at a cost of $150,000, establish a fund for legal fees for use in mitigation, and upgrade a water delivery system from Indian Creek Springs east of town, where the city gets the majority of its winter water supply.
    Haemmerle, who serves as legal counsel for the Hiawatha Canal Co. and specializes in water-rights litigation, said due to a poorly engineered water delivery system from Indian Creek the city is only able to receive about half of its allowable 3.56 cubic feet per second of water from the spring.
    The Indian Creek water right, dating from 1883, supplies the city with all of its potable water for household consumption in winter. Under a mitigation plan, excess water from the spring could possibly be transferred for irrigation uses.
    Harmon said such a source would be invulnerable to calls from the canal he manages.
    “An 1883 right is pretty safe from the Big Wood Canal Co.,” he said.
    Harmon said due to the snowpack remaining longer than usual in the high country above Ketchum this spring, farmers downstream along the Big Wood Canal will be out of water by mid-July. He said the dry year will adversely affect about 40,000 acres of agriculture.
    Harmon said farmers are responding to the dry spell by planting short-season crops such as barley, and will likely only get one cut of alfalfa, rather than two or three.
    “Its pretty bleak down here,” he said.

Tony Evans:

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