April 15, 2007 in Idaho

Water summit a private party

John Miller Associated Press

BOISE – Farmers, city officials and business people plan to meet Tuesday in Burley, Idaho, for Gov. Butch Otter’s water summit, hoping to solve an impasse over eastern Idaho water shortages at an all-day meeting that will include “closed-door caucuses and private discussions.”

Minority Democrats say the 3 1/2 scheduled hours of private sessions aren’t good policy. Otter says such discretion is needed for frank discussions involving him, his top water manager and those he invited.

The talks could include discussion of using a $15 million rainy-day fund that was set up by the 2007 Legislature for an unspecified economic crisis. The cash could buy out some water users, lawmakers have said.

Otter is one of five Idaho Republicans who control the $15 million. The others are: Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs; House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale; Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert; and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome.

Democrats, who in March raised concerns about putting the fate of the $15 million in the hands of just five GOP lawmakers, especially for a still-nebulous purpose, now fear a plan for using the taxpayers’ money could emerge during talks held largely beyond public earshot.

“We hold the water in public trust, as government officials, and we collect the taxpayers’ money in public trust,” said Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise. “And the public’s business ought to be conducted in public.”

The water summit doesn’t involve a state agency, so no open meeting is required.

Since early 2005, farmers who get their water from canals have been fighting with those who pump from the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, a Lake Erie-sized underground reservoir stretching from Elmore County to Rexburg. At issue is whether the “groundwater pumpers,” with water rights from the 1950s, should give up water that canal operators with century-old water rights say is rightfully theirs.

The big worry: Without a solution, the battle could crimp growth in eastern Idaho, hampering economic development and crippling agriculture. Otter called the summit after the Idaho Supreme Court in March ruled that state water managers must take into account where the resource can best be put to use, not just who owned it first.

The governor says the closed-door session in Burley is necessary to help feuding water users resolve long-standing conflicts.

“Just because people talk behind closed doors, just because people try to find solutions to problems behind closed doors, doesn’t mean that the solutions are secret in any way,” said Mark Warbis, Otter’s spokesman.

Lynn Tominaga, director of the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, said private meetings are OK with him.

“They’re going to put the squeeze on the stakeholders. If you’re negotiating something, you don’t put everything that’s on the table out for public view,” he said. “It’ll come out in the public (later). Then the debate can begin.”

© Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email