Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Farmers still at odds with Legacy Project

Plan gains momentum at state level


By STEVE BENSON
Express Staff Writer

Town Meeting

· What: Wood River Legacy Project meeting with Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum.

· When: Friday, Feb. 16, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

· Where: Room 301-2 at the Community Campus in Hailey.

The Wood River Legacy Project continues to build momentum at the state level, with a hearing in the Legislature looming.

But contrary to claims made by the project's director, Rich McIntyre, there are still serious concerns about the project's potential impacts on agricultural operations in Blaine County, specifically a depletion of the aquifer in the Bellevue Triangle.

With McIntyre saying one thing and the Triangle farmers saying another, Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, has scheduled a special meeting to get to the bottom of the issue on Friday, Feb. 16, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. in Room 301-2 at the Community Campus in Hailey.

The Legacy Project aims to change Idaho water law to give water rights holders more options—specifically to keep some of their allotted water in-stream. Current Idaho water law is based on a "use it or lose it" policy, meaning some people are forced to use more water than they need in order to keep from losing those rights.

McIntyre claims the project, which was recently introduced as Senate bill 1136 in the Idaho Legislature, will be a win-win for everyone, including anglers and farmers.

A 12-mile stretch of the Big Wood River south of Bellevue, which runs dry for most of the year due to longstanding irrigation practices, could be revived to support a fishery, he said.

But McIntyre has mainly sold his project as a benefit to agriculture, and he smartly focused on collecting support from down-basin farming communities in Lincoln, Gooding and Jerome counties.

He also won over Blaine County and its municipalities, which all initially offered conceptual support.

But McIntyre essentially struck out in the Bellevue Triangle, which is one of the last agricultural strongholds in the county.

Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen, who represents District 1, which includes the south county and Bellevue Triangle, said "of course" McIntyre was successful in gathering support from down-basin communities.

"Because this could provide them with more water," he said.

Schoen, who is a member of the Legacy Project's steering committee, withdrew his support for the project in January due to his constituents' concerns and the fact that "there are too many issues that need to be addressed. The principle one is aquifer recharge."

Last Friday, McIntyre held a press conference in Hailey to announce that his project was unanimously approved by the legislative committee of the Idaho Water Users Association and was destined for a hearing.

He said the media had misrepresented the Legacy Project and that the concerns of the Triangle farmers "have been addressed."

But he also said this is a big basin and "all of the water does not belong (in the Triangle)."

"We can not change facts of life for these folks," he said.

McIntyre said the Legacy Project, if eventually approved by the state Legislature, would not be implemented until 2008 to allow for the completion of ongoing water studies. He said an advisory committee, which will have four representatives from the Wood River Valley, will also be created to protect farmers' interests.

People who want to keep their water in-stream will have to undergo an intense review process by the committee, McIntyre said. If there is a concern that the donation could negatively impact farming operations, it could be rejected by the committee, he added.

Schoen, who stressed that the concerns of the Traingle farmers "have not been addressed," believes McIntyre is putting the cart before the horse.

"The issue here is not whether it's a good idea to put water back in the river through the Wood River Legacy Project," he said. "We have to have the bigger policy discussion of, 'Do we want to change irrigation practices?' These are patterns that have developed over decades and this bill does not address changes in water use.

"To simply say the committee will make recommendations and the director decides is not enough for me."

Additionally, Schoen does not understand Mcintyre's rush.

"People from Gooding, Lincoln and Blaine—we're all supposed to have a complete understanding of the aquifer, and a better definition of consumptive water use in eight months?" Schoen said. "I mean, come on. It's tough enough getting a city and county together, let alone all these people from other jurisdictions."






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