- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 13, 2019

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Gov. Brad Little on Wednesday signed legislation to end years of litigation and help finalize an agreement involving water rights in heavily populated southwestern Idaho.

The new law makes sure rights to water that refills reservoirs in the Boise River system following flood control releases are protected should additional large water storage systems be built.

The Idaho Department of Water Resources counts everything coming down the river against someone’s water rights. But Boise River system water users said their water was being used up in flood-control releases in the spring when they couldn’t use the water, creating the potential of not getting what they considered their fair share in the summer.

Water-rights holders have historically still received water from the reservoirs that typically refill after flood-control releases, but some felt uncomfortable with the system, especially after the significant flood-control releases in early 2017.

That uncertainty led to lawsuits between canal companies, irrigation districts and the state. The entities reached the agreement last year, but legislation was needed to finalize it.

Under the agreement, the Water Resources Department will still track everything coming down the river and count it against a water right. But Boise River system water users will now have rights to the water that refills the reservoirs following flood-control releases.

“This is such an Idaho thing, for Idahoans to get together and solve this contentious issue,” Little said. The bill passed unanimously.

“This is a landmark piece of legislation,” said Republican House Speaker Bedke, a key player in the agreement. “The best thing about this is that we got to know each other, we got to trust each other, and we got a reaffirmation that we want to put Idaho first and the wellbeing of its citizens.”

Ultimately, Little and Bedke said, taking care of water quantity issues will lead to working on water quality issues. Both also said the agreement and legislation could set an example for future water issues.

“We’re allocating a scarce resource called water,” Bedke said. “And that’s going to be a challenge here.”

The multiple lawsuits involved water released from Lucky Peak Reservoir, Arrowrock Reservoir and Anderson Ranch Reservoir for flood control. Combined, they hold about 1.1 million acre-feet.

Lucky Peak is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers primarily for flood control, while the other two are operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation primarily for irrigation. But the federal agencies coordinate efforts on flood control to protect the city of Boise and surrounding areas from flooding by releasing water during heavy snow years to make room in the reservoirs for additional snowmelt.

The next step in the process is for the Snake River Basin Adjudication Court to consider water rights to the refill. If everything goes according to plan, the court would issue decrees for water rights to the storage refill in the reservoirs following flood-control releases.

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