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Otter holds first state ‘water summit’

Gov. Butch Otter’s first “Idaho Water Summit” wrapped up Tuesday, with Otter saying it will develop principles that will serve as a blueprint for water management statewide.

The summit focused on the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer in southern and eastern Idaho, where there are questions about recharging the aquifer, providing certainty to farmers that they won’t lose their irrigation water midseason, and how to pay for it all.

“From now on we’re going to focus our efforts on solutions,” Otter told more than 200 people attending the daylong conference in Burley. “We’ve spent too much time fighting. We’ve invited you here to come up with a plan. We expect no less.”

Otter convened an 18-person committee of surface water users, groundwater users, spring water users, municipalities, county assessors, industry, utilities and domestic well users after an Idaho Supreme Court ruling March 5 that upheld the state’s “conjunctive management” approach, which tries to address groundwater and surface water as a single resource. But the ruling also said state water managers must consider how water is used, rather than just who had water rights first.

It’s a contentious issue in a part of the state where more water rights have been handed out than there’s water available, especially in dry years – and there’ve been lots of those.

Otter said the state is responsible, because it approved water rights beyond the capability of the aquifer to meet. “For that, and for all the people who did that, I’m sincerely sorry,” Otter said. “But we have to play the hand we’re dealt, and we haven’t been dealt a very good hand.”

Former state Rep. Wayne Meyer, R-Rathdrum, a grass seed farmer, was among those assembled on the committee, which met in Burley, near Twin Falls. “The disagreements and issues that they’ve been dealing with down here for years and years and years, I’m afraid at some point it’ll reach the Rathdrum Prairie area too,” Meyer said.

The group spent the morning reviewing issues surrounding water use in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, then spent the afternoon in “caucuses” representing various interests to come up with suggestions.

Among the issues the small groups brought forward: providing certainty to farmers, so if they plant a crop they know their water won’t be shut off midseason while it’s still growing; recharging the aquifer; and money. “One of the issues that came forward as always was money – who’s going to pay for it and where is it going to come from,” Meyer said.

Idaho lawmakers this year set aside $15 million in a special fund for urgent economic needs – but not emergencies, for which there already are state funds – and took the unprecedented step of naming the speaker of the House, the president pro-tem of the Senate, and the co-chairs of the joint legislative budget committee as the guardians of the $15 million. With the governor’s concurrence, those four GOP officials can decide how the state Department of Commerce should spend the money.

Though lawmakers have suggested the money could be used to buy out some water rights, no decisions have been made.

At the opening of the meeting, Otter announced that he’s appointing Dave Tuthill, the interim director of the state Department of Water Resources, to become the department’s director. “We can’t achieve long-term solutions with temporary, interim initiatives,” he said. “And we can’t achieve long-term solutions with a temporary, interim director.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.