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Water group gears up to fight Caldwell over drains

The state’s biggest water lobbying group has joined a small irrigation district’s fight to stop Caldwell from seizing control of some of the district’s canals and ditches where the city wants to continue disposing of storm water that runs off its streets when it rains.

The Idaho Water Users Association said Dec. 27 that Caldwell’s eminent domain lawsuit against the Pioneer Irrigation District, filed last month, is a governmental water grab that could ripple through Idaho’s other irrigation districts if it isn’t slapped down.

Pioneer first filed a lawsuit in 2008 seeking to force Caldwell to remove storm water discharge points, or “outfalls,” arguing potentially polluted runoff from urban areas was illegally entering a system that waters residential lawns as well as rich Canyon County farm country via canals fed by the Boise River.

With its eminent-domain bid, Caldwell said it aims to preserve outfalls within city limits by taking ownership of 10,000 acres in the heart of the 34,000-acre irrigation district. It cites laws that allow governments to condemn private property in situations where it’s “most compatible with the greatest public good and the least private injury.”

Norm Semanko, executive director of the water users association, called the city’s move “unprecedented and draconian.” His group includes some 300 irrigation districts and canal companies, agri-businesses and others and is considered one of Idaho’s most-potent lobbying forces.

“What Caldwell is saying with this eminent domain lawsuit is, ‘We’re going to take over the system and make our own rules,’“ said Semanko, a former Idaho Republican Party chairman. “Where does this thing end? If a city isn’t happy with how their highways are being run, do they exercise their power of eminent domain against the local highway district?”

The dispute between Caldwell, a farming hub of 46,000 residents just west of Boise, and the 111-year-old Pioneer Irrigation District has an expensive legal history.

Each side has spent about $2 million since Pioneer sued five years ago aiming to force Caldwell to plug numerous storm water outfalls on grounds they were discharging water to canals and ditches illegally.

At the time, the district raised the specter that polluted urban storm water posed potential health risks to patrons.

Over the years, portions of the case have been resolved, most recently in November by the Idaho Supreme Court.

Then, justices ruled, among other things, that irrigation districts have the right to remove unpermitted storm water drains that unreasonably interfere with their right of way.

A trial is now scheduled for June, for a judge to settle the outstanding issue of whether as many as 20 of Caldwell’s outfalls must be removed – and if so, who pays for it.

Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas didn’t return a phone call seeking comment Dec. 27, but lawyers for the city said they filed the eminent domain case as a “last resort.”

Caldwell fears being forced to build redundant drainage infrastructure costing tens of millions of dollars if the district prevails in court.

“The economic ramifications of this are just huge,” said Eric Stidham, the city’s attorney. “Pioneer is trying to take away not just the city’s rights, but specifically Caldwell residents’ rights to drain their property – a right that has existed ever since the property has existed.”

Pioneer accuses Caldwell of a “hostile takeover” and argues losing a third of its system would harm the integrity of the district, which includes canals and ditches located both up- and downstream from the city.

“The eminent domain filing is dangerous and potentially monumentally expensive,” said Alan Newbill, the district’s board president. “This is detrimental to both Pioneer patrons and city of Caldwell residents and is without merit.”

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