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The Idaho Statesman - Always Idaho


Officials push for water regulation
Collaboration key to balancing market needs, agencies say


Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman

The free market offers great benefits for balancing the growing water needs of cities, fish and farms in the West.

But that market needs to be regulated to preserve the region´s agricultural economy and small communities, state and federal officials said Thursday at a conference at the Red Lion Hotel Boise Downtowner.

John Keys, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency which supplies water to more than 30 million people in 17 Western states, said Idaho´s water bank is one of the innovative ways states can shift water from one use to another to meet new demands. A water bank is a brokerage service that allows farmers and others to lease their surplus water to others.

Other states have been more aggressive about allowing urban water users and groups who want to leave water in rivers for fish and recreation to pay top dollar to permanently buy water. This has resulted in drying up entire basins of farms, the most famous of which is California´s Owens Valley, whose water was sent to Los Angeles.

Farmers pay less than $10 an acre-foot —enough for 6, 524 five-minute showers — to lease water in a water bank. Municipal water companies are willing to pay up to $600 for the same amount.

The water market needs to be regulated, said former U.S. Sen. James McClure, so rich outside interests cannot overwhelm the social and economic structure of a community. “There is no question Idaho could look like Owens Valley if we allowed California to buy our water,” McClure said.

The “Water 2025” conference was the fifth in a series held around the West to foster a discussion on how to meet future needs for water. In many Western communities, water supplies are already tight, especially in the sixth year of a drought.

But Keys warned that without collaboration, planning and creativity, many more communities could run short of water as the population explodes and as more water is required to help endangered species and provide recreation.

Irrigation farmers and the canal companies that supply them are pushing the agency to plan for more storage projects, such as increasing the height of existing dams or building more off-site storage reservoirs such as Lake Lowell.

“The West simply will not be able to meet future demands for water if new storage and supply projects are not included in any future strategies,” said Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Waterusers´ Association.

Keys agreed, but said other strategies such as markets, conservation and technological advances need to be done before new storage is sought. “I don´t come here with a bag full of money to handle our problems,” he said.

“Storage is not off the board,” he added. “We are saying we have to look at other measures first.”

For every dollar spent, the bureau is getting $3 back in conservation measures, he said.

Reed Benson, assistant professor of law at the University of Wyoming, said conservation offers many benefits, including reducing conflict. But opening water up to a freer market could meet fish wildlife and municipal needs cheaper. “It is more expensive to conserve water than just to buy water rights,” he said.

United Water Idaho, the largest municipal water supplier in Idaho, seeks to develop a freer water market in the Treasure Valley to meet its growing needs.

“When I use the word ´lease´ and not ´purchase,´ it really helps,” said H. Scott Rhead, managing engineer for United Water.

To offer story ideas or comments, contact Rocky Barker
rbarker@idahostatesman.com or 377-6484

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