Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Petition to county seeks to divide irrigation district

Effort enabled by new Idaho legislation

Express Staff Writer

    Reflecting an apparent schism between large and small property owners in the Bellevue Triangle, a petition to divide the Wood River Valley Irrigation District No. 45 was delivered to the Blaine County commissioners Tuesday.
    The petition seeks to create a new, 6,000-acre district out of the current 9,400-acre one. James White, the current district’s secretary-treasurer, said in an interview that about 125 property owners comprise the district.
    The petition was enabled by legislation passed during the 2013 session of the Legislature. The new law states that the commissioners “shall” approve the petition if they find that it meets all the law’s criteria.
    Twenty-seven people attended the meeting at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey where the petition was presented, though few provided comments.
    “There have been major problems with how we look at things,” said Pepin Corso-Harris, a supporter of the petition. “We have become exhausted in trying to get the district to be run the way that a district should be.”
    Harris did not specify how the district was allegedly mismanaged, and could not be reached for comment following the meeting.
    However, in both spoken and written comments, other district members claimed the petition is an effort by a few large property owners to take over most of the district’s operations.
    Andy Waldera, the district’s Boise-based attorney, called the petition an effort to do an “end run” around a 2009 districtwide election that defeated a proposal to change board member elections from a one-person-one-vote format to one weighted by amount of property ownership. Under the partition law, canals and other facilities would be jointly owned by both of the potentially new districts and managed by a board of control elected according to amount of property ownership.
    “The contents of the bill essentially wrests control of the district’s assets and operation from the vast voting majority in favor of the landed gentry while doing nothing to preserve agriculture,” district member Mark Gower stated in a letter to the county commissioners.
    In an interview, Gower said former board members were defeated in elections after they had passed rules charging small owners more per unit of water than large property owners.
    “The small users got fed up and voted them out,” Gower said.
    The legislation enabling the partition of water districts was introduced in the state Senate by Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, and in the House by Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding. It was passed unanimously in both houses.
    In an interview, Pence said she sponsored the bill after being contacted by the Idaho Water Users Association, which supported it.
    “It appeared to me a well-thought-out plan to allow large landowners to solve their problems with water disbursement and the smaller people to get together and solve their problems,” Pence said. “I had no idea there was dissension.”
    In an email, Stennett stated that “it was determined a win-win for everyone in a unique water district that has diverse water needs. My only intention was to give fairness and equal standing
to all users.”
    Several district members said the district board was not notified of the proposed legislation.
    “We were blindsided,” White said in an interview.
    At the Tuesday meeting, in accordance with the new law, the commissioners set a date of Sept. 17 for a hearing on the petition. Attorney Waldera argued that the commissioners would not need to make a decision at that hearing.

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