Friday, November 1, 2013

County leaders mull plan for new water rights

Company aims to redirect spring water from Big Wood River

The Big Wood River surges from spring runoff north of Ketchum in 2012. Photo by staff files

For the Express

    Blaine County has filed a protest against a plan by former Idaho Department of Water Resources Director David Tuthill to establish new water rights from the Big Wood River. The objection is to Tuthill’s plan to collect excess spring runoff to later sell water to users in dry times.
    Meanwhile, Blaine County commissioners on Oct. 22 heard a presentation from Tuthill, owner of Idaho Water Engineering, on his amended application to establish new water rights in the county.
    The commissioner’s original protest of Idaho Water Engineering’s application for water rights centered on several concerns, one being that Tuthill’s water-use activity would be for “speculative purposes.” They expressed concern that the proposed activities would be conducted through a private company not directly engaged in agricultural activities, but reselling their credits to another user.

The peak flow in the Big Wood is very important to the system.”
Dayna Gross
The Nature Conservancy

    Tuthill is in the process of applying for rights to collect flood waters from the Big Wood River and “recharge” local aquifers as a solution to new mitigation laws coming into effect. He plans to deposit the excess water in aquifers throughout the county, which could later be used for residents downstream from storage areas. If Tuthill were to succeed, those interested in accessing his company’s credits could do so for a fee.
    Tuthill presented his latest proposal Oct. 22 in order to sway commissioners to approve his application. Though he had few supporters in attendance at the meeting, Tuthill remained steadfast in his claims that a recharge initiative would alleviate future water mitigation and aid in the process of conservation—even though his plan would effectively allow residents to avoid conserving by purchasing additional water through his company.
    Describing water supplies as “assets,” he expressed his desire for the county to move toward “conjunctive management,” saying that water rights should be optimized to their utmost potential. Conjunctive management is the term used to describe collective management of surface and groundwater. Tuthill said that since federal, state or county governments would be reluctant to pay for the recharge, the responsibility would fall to private companies like his own.
    Tuthill also claimed that his plan would not affect water levels in Magic Reservoir, at the downstream end of the Big Wood River.
    “There are multiple ways to mitigate, and yes, water would still go to Magic,” he said.
    Commissioner Jacob Greenberg expressed concern.
    “I can see two different perspectives here,” he said. “One is, somebody’s making some money off of this. The other one is, we’re trying to conserve the water we have so the aquifer gets replenished and the valley is green. What is the real purpose? Is someone gaining by this, or are they gaining and also as an aside offering some conservation?”
    “The driver is to provide water privately,” Tuthill said. “What we’re offering is an opportunity to save water in the aquifer so we can give you a chance to continue to irrigate, if you pay for it.”
    Commissioner Larry Schoen said he wants the public to know about the plan.
    “Whether or not we support this particular water rights application, this is an opportunity for the public to come in and hear about this proposal and to learn more about the role recharge would make in mitigation,” he said.
    Representatives of local conservation groups at the Oct. 22 meeting also expressed concern.
    Dayna Gross, representing The Nature Conservancy, said the environment could be adversely affected.
    “The peak flow in the Big Wood is very important to the system,” she said. “We’re talking about moving sediment, building fish habitat, recharging the floodplain—the river does actually recharge as well, creating the floodplain. If you remove that, you’re talking about some serious impacts to the river and we don’t know what those are.”
    She added, “What is the process for mitigation? This should be a community process where we come up with what we want this valley to look like, what mitigation means and how we implement it.”
    Commissioners did not take a formal vote on whether they approve of the plan.
    Idaho Water Engineering opened an office in Ketchum last September, in anticipation of future business opportunities.

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