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Allowing Elmore County to divert water from the Boise River to replenish Mountain Home’s aquifer could also jeopardize the health of the South Fork of the Boise River and the fish that live there, the Idaho Conservation League argues.That would be counter to the public interest — another reason the department can deny a water right application.
“What do you tell these people that have built up ag operations and things like that, that are reliant on that?Late last year, the department convened a hearing on it, after the city of Boise, the Idaho Conservation League and a coalition of irrigators in the Boise Basin contested the claim.The objections range from environmental concerns to economic ones.The hearing also raised an existential question looming over towns across the arid West: Should a community be forced to live within the constraints of its natural watershed?“You compare today’s world to Owens Valley, and we are in a different place in how we think about water,” Alex Maas, an economist at the University of Idaho who specializes in water issues, told me.Idaho, like most Western states, allows a city, irrigation company or other user to pump water up and over (or through) the ridge separating natural watersheds, a process called a trans-basin diversion.
Such transfers have a long and fraught history, from Owens Lake in California, which the Los Angeles Water Board drained in the early 1900s to slake the thirst of the growing city 200 miles to the south, to Colorado’s dozens of diversions, most of which funnel water across the Continental Divide, from the wetter western side of the state to cities and farms in the arid east.
“An unsustainable status quo is not made sustainable by doubling down on what created the problem in the first place,” Kellner wrote in a brief.
In other words, issuing a new water right may not be the best way to solve a problem caused by issuing too many water rights.
“At some point,” the brief concludes, “it has to stop.” Mountain Home officials see recharging the aquifer with floodwater as a solution to the problem, not a perpetuation of it.
If, in some years, there’s more water flowing down the Boise River than others are already using, why not let Elmore County boost its groundwater levels?
County commissioners have indicated they’d be willing to accept conditions; as Bud Corbus, one of the commissioners, said, their intent isn’t to harm the river, or the fisheries it supports.