The strong approval of the 2012 Idaho Water Plan by the House Resources and Conservation Committee adds to the story about the state's amazing turnaround on water policy.
The panel voted 13-5 for the plan that went into effect Friday. The Idaho Constitution requires that lawmakers reject or edit it within 60 days of the session's start, or it is approved as written.
The committee's robust discussion of the plan and, paradoxically, the opposition by a minority of lawmakers, brought many more Idahoans into the process.
The plan, last updated in 1996, sets water policy for the state. All state agencies are required to follow it in their own management decisions.
A group of lawmakers wanted to edit the plan to remove references to climate variability, protection of in-stream flows for salmon, protection of wetlands and even collaboration.
Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, made the case in an impassioned but reasoned speech to the committee. She said the group of legislators wanted to ensure that the plan put Idaho's interests first and protected private property rights.
"We earnestly wanted to make it a better plan," Wood said.
Republican Rep. Ken Andrus said he received 150 emails from people opposed to editing the plan. He acknowledged that he did not know the extent of support for the plan and said he understood why people felt blindsided by legislators' behind-the-scenes negotiations.
The committee's support for maintaining an unedited plan was sealed when the Idaho Water Users reiterated its support. Its members include representatives of the canal companies, irrigation districts, cities and dam owners such as Idaho Power Co., and it wields the power when it comes to water policy in Idaho.
The group doesn't weigh in often when its membership is deeply divided over an issue.
It had stood firm on whether the state would press to change water law to allow farmers to sell their rights to a conservation group or the federal government to dry up farmland to help fish. Surrounding states like Montana and Oregon allow this very free-market approach to conservation.
But Idaho farmers have resisted, fearing that entire watersheds could be dried up to keep water in streams for endangered salmon and steelhead, leaving rural economies stunted long into the future.
The state plan didn't go that far, but policy for years had been to develop a rule that might dry some fields for fish.
Instead, Idahoans have been creative. Ranchers and farmers in the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi river basins have devised a voluntary approach, using a "water bank" to supply water to rivers when the fish are there and need it.
Instead of having to commit to drying up land to fill the water bank, the same farmers cooperatively agree to alternatively shut off their water so they all get enough for their (mostly) hay crops while the salmon get enough water in which to swim and spawn.
When the State Water Board cleared up that point in 2012, the water users added their support to the plan that already had strong support from cities, groundwater users, Idaho Power Co. and environmental groups such as Idaho Rivers United.
"Maybe we wouldn't have written the plan the way they did, but we support the process," said Norm Semanko, Idaho Water Users Association executive director.
That process included more than 30 meetings between the Water Resources Board, the Department of Water Resources staff and groups from all different sides.
When Idaho Gov. Butch Otter first took office, Idaho water users were locked in legal combat over the future of the state. Farmers who irrigated their water from springs that flowed into the Snake River were fighting with farmers who pumped water directly out of the aquifer.
Fish companies that depended on the springs were asking Otter and the state to dry up thousands of acres of rich cropland. Today, they all sit at a table and, after several Supreme Court decisions, have developed a comprehensive aquifer-management plan that protects water rights, the Idaho economy and the fish and wildlife that depend on the rivers.
Otter announced the state water plan in his State of the State address Jan. 4, giving it his strong support and hailing the process that had brought so many former adversaries together.
"It will help guide how we use, protect and replenish our water supplies for a more sustainable future," he said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484