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Water, Water... and Then Some

How a change to Idaho code bypasses water rights in emergency situations.


If Idaho has an abundance of anything this spring it's water, with steady snowmelt pushing area rivers past flood stage. If you're a farmer, however, you don't dare touch much of the water rushing through your land without first securing Idaho water rights. For years, Gem State water right laws have capped farmers' temporary use of water at a volume of five acre feet. Now, under an amendment to Idaho Code approved by the 2017 Idaho Legislature and signed into law by Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter, those temporary caps have been lifted in case of emergencies such as flooding.

"The five-acre-foot limit would have been so minimal that it wouldn't allow it to be effective, so there was a change made by the Legislature to the statute governing the temporary use of water that removed the limit for three specific uses," said Matthew Weaver, deputy director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources. "Those three uses are, No. 1, the diversion of water to prevent flood damage; No. 2, to recharge groundwater aquifers; and, No. 3, to remediate ground and surface water that has been contaminated."

Heavy winter snow and equally heavy spring rains have triggered flooding, washouts, mudslides, avalanches and damage to property around the state. To date, 25 of Idaho's 44 counties have been issued emergency declarations by Otter.

"That water is doing damage because of flooding and in other instances it's leaving and flowing out of the state of Idaho," said Weaver. "There are people out there who could take that water that's going to be lost from Idaho and put it in the ground. They could recharge and benefit some of our groundwater resources that are in decline."

Still, it's not as if users can divert spring flows at their whim. IDWR is accepting applications for the temporary use of water, and officials said they've already heard from a number of Idaho canal companies and irrigation districts.

"What this does is allow people to do opportunistic [aquifer] recharge and flood-fighting without having to go through the formal, drawn-out process of establishing a water right," Weaver said. "We can process these applications quickly because it's not going to be a permanent use and because we are less concerned about injury."