Uncertainty continued to surround the impact of electric deregulation on Idaho water rights on Tuesday as water law experts found themselves at odds over the potential threat posed by competition in the power industry.
Two suggested existing state laws are sufficient - with minor modifications - to protect the wholesale diversion of water from agriculture and other uses to generation of power for sale nationwide.
But two warned that deregulation could open new avenues for end runs on existing water rights to enhance generation from the Snake River once the market for Idaho-produced power grows from essentially the state to the nation under deregulation.
And the lack of consensus only complicated the deliberations of the special legislative committee that for the past 15 months has been evaluating deregulation and how the state should deal with it if and when it decides to.
“Water is so critically important to the economic vitality of Idaho that we want to make absolutely sure there are no unintended consequences,” said Sen. John Hansen, the Idaho Falls Republican who cochairs the special panel.
Jeff Fereday, representing ground water irrigators who have been concerned about the impact on their rights, conceded that while deregulation remains an issue others loom much larger like the federal demand for instream water rights in the basin adjudication proceedings and the potential for federal regulatory action that would preclude consumptive uses and override existing state water rights.
“Right now,” Fereday told the committee, deregulation “doesn’t appear to represent the kind of threat that others do.”
The pumpers also recently received an economic analysis that indicated they might actually see a decline in their rates under deregulation rather than the increases they had long feared.
A number of committee members are among those who still question the need for deregulation in Idaho when the state already has the lowest power rates in the nation. But while their questioning continues, they appeared to be looking at an inevitability that others maintain should be dealt with rather than ignored.
Nancy Hirsh of the Northwest Conservation Act Coalition urged the panel to include in any framework established for deregulation adequate provisions for public programs like conservation, weatherization, universal service and consumer protection.
“There’s no doubt in our mind that residential customers will not benefit the way industrial customers will so additional vigilance is needed,” Hirsh.
And if the state fails to act in those areas, she predicted the federal government would and the plan it imposes may not be to the state’s liking.
But Hirsh also said that while she remains concerned about the intense pressure of competition taking its toll on wildlife, consumer and other programs, she is reassured by the amount of discussion those issues have generated among policy makers in the Northwest.
Montana is the only state in the region to enact deregulation legislation, passing it this spring. But the debate is under way in Oregon and Washington as well as Idaho.
Gov. Phil Batt also has a special council headed by former Sen. James McClure assessing deregulation.
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