Attorney wants to simplify recharge efforts

Sprinklers across Idaho Falls could be turned off if the city ever faced a water curtailment. An attorney who represents Idaho Falls on water issues wants to simplify the legal process of conducting managed aquifer recharge. Post Register file

Attorney Rob Harris, who represents Idaho Falls on water issues, gave a presentation at a Feb. 21 water symposium in Idaho Falls hosted by the Eastern Idaho Water Rights Coalition and Recharge Development Corp. John O’Connell / for the Post Register

A local attorney has suggested a change to state law intended to simplify the legal process of conducting managed aquifer recharge with natural-flow water rights.

Recharge entails intentionally allowing surface water to seep into declining aquifers by running it through unlined canals or spilling it into adjacent basins, such as gravel pits. At the moment, recharge is conducted mostly with leased reservoir storage water, or with special recharge water rights that are eligible for use only when there’s an abundance of surplus water in rivers and streams.

Rob Harris, who represents Idaho Falls on water issues, presented his hypothetical legislation during a recent water symposium, hoping to spur dialogue about a concept intended to make recharge a better option for some users, such as the city. He said his policy would facilitate recharge with canal company or irrigation district natural-flow rights specified for irrigation, from which the water user owns shares in a canal company or is assessed for certain acres within an irrigation district.

Harris explained most natural-flow water rights don’t list aquifer recharge as an allowed use.

Idaho Falls would like to partner with Idaho Irrigation District to recharge river water, offsetting municipal water use in compliance with a broad call on groundwater users, filed by the Surface Water Coalition.

Under current law, the city would have to obtain a permanent water rights transfer — which would open the door to opponents’ legal objections — or navigate through a paperwork-intensive process to lease a specific water right to the Water Supply Bank and then lease it back with a temporarily changed use.

“There’s a discouragement, I think, to go through that kind of a process,” Harris said. “The idea is to remove this step of having to go through the Water Supply Bank.”

Harris proposes allowing natural-flow rights to be used for recharge without the “red tape.” He said his conceptual legislation would require a water entity such as a canal company — which would prioritize irrigation over recharge out of self-interest — to retain oversight of recharge. Furthermore, he would mandate that land entitled to receive water from canal company natural-flow water rights where the owner elects to use water allocated to the property owner for recharge couldn’t be irrigated with other surface water supplies.

Harris has no immediate plans to introduce the bill in the state Legislature, but Idaho Falls Public Works Director Chris Fredericksen believes the concept is worth considering.

“From the city’s viewpoint, anything we can do to increase the number of tools we have to meet mitigation measures is going to be advantageous for our residents,” Fredericksen said. “We’d be supportive of making recharge easier for people to accommodate, and more seamless.”

Kent Fletcher, an attorney who represents Surface Water Coalition members, hasn’t seen Harris’s suggested language and wouldn’t comment on the specifics. In general, however, Fletcher said procedures are already in place to accommodate recharge, and his clients would be leery of any statute that might “bypass procedures.”

“If they want to change the procedure, that is always going to come under close scrutiny by my clients,” Fletcher said.