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Idaho panel to urge Otter for special session on water fight

Irrigation equipment in an Idaho farm field. Treasure Valley irrigators and state officials have been in court since 2013 over water use. File photo.

Key legislative leaders on June 6 promised to urge Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to call a special session to resolve a longstanding water battle.

Special sessions are rare in Idaho, with only 28 being held since the territory became a state in 1890.

However, members on the Natural Resources Interim Committee unanimously agreed the ongoing legal challenges surrounding a Treasure Valley water dispute are serious enough to call lawmakers back to Boise outside of a regular session.

In Idaho, only the governor can call a special session.

Otter, a Republican, was traveling in eastern Idaho on June 6. His spokesman, Jon Hanian, did not immediately have a response to the committee’s decision to write Otter a letter pushing for a special session.

The issue surrounds a lengthy legal battle between Treasure Valley irrigators and state officials that kicked off in court in 2013 but has been boiling at the surface for nearly a decade. It comes down to how much water users are entitled to during snow-heavy years, when reservoirs tend to be full, and water must be released in early spring to maintain space for snow runoff and manage river flows. It’s a delicate balance to ensure enough water is sent downstream.

Yet several steps need to be taken before a settlement can be finalized, House Speaker Scott Bedke said to lawmakers on June 6. That starts with Otter calling a special session so lawmakers can pass a bill that state officials say is needed to sign off on the settlement.

The draft legislation would change state law to say that new attempts to store water cannot interfere with existing reservoir storage. The legislation is a part but not all of the settlement.

“To think this is just a piece of legislation for one piece of the state is not true,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, a Republican from Star, who made the motion for the committee to push for the special session.

“This affects the whole state. Imagine a new storage facility along the Snake River plain that would dry up the farms and ranches in that area, that’s something we want to avoid,” he said.

Water users are also being encouraged to pull their appeals currently scheduled to go before the Idaho Supreme Court on June 20, Bedke said. The fear is that if the case is allowed to be argued before state’s highest court, it could result in a ruling potentially upending decades of work around water allocation.

“I would urge the parties to show good faith at this point, and make a motion to postpone the June 20 oral arguments,” Bedke said.

Bedke and water users involved in the lawsuit have repeatedly said all stakeholders in the lawsuit are on board with the settlement. As of June 6, that remained unclear.

Otter hasn’t publicly weighed in on the possibility of a special session.

Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman hinted last week that a special session may not be necessary, calling such talks “premature.” He later told the Idaho Statesman June 6 he plans on staying neutral on the issue because he works for Otter and a special session is up to Otter.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office — which is representing the state on this case — has declined requests for comment on the case.

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