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An urban water tipping point

In times of drought, city people are often encouraged to limit their water use: Wash cars less often, water lawns less regularly. Nothing wrong with that, but such advice tends to cloak the really heavy users 0f water in the non-coastal west: agricultural irrigators. In most states west of the 100th meridian, excepting the Pacific coastal area, anywhere from 80% to 90% of water used by people is used by farmers.

In places like Idaho, where water is monitored closely, the people much involved with water – notably the policy makers and water users – tend to be well aware of that, and it’s lodged into practical thinking on the subject. Time may be coming, though, when thinking on the subject is due for a shift. Urban growth in places like Phoenix and Las Vegas has started to crimp water use in the southwest. And now come early signs some of the same could be happening in the Snake River basin in Idaho.

The trigger for some rethinking was the battle, over the last few months, between Idaho Power Company on one side and the state government and many water users on the other. Iddaho Power maintained that it is feeling increasing pressure as it tries to keep its power rates low in a time of growth; its traditional means of doing that is through its hydropower dams, which provide some of the least expensive juice. Its demands for water rank head first into the needs of many southern Idaho irrigators, among others.

A deal, for now, was reached on that situation several weeks ago; it calls for irrigators to pay a substantial part of the increased cost that higher power demands have imposed on Idaho Power. But a disquieting note appears in comments from Lynn Tominaga, a former state senator and now executive director of the Idaho Irrigation Pumpers Association.

Irrigators have been held to account for many of Idaho Power’s increased costs and pressures. But Tominaga makes a solid point: “Do you see new irrigated land coming into production?”

He’s right: It hasn’t. And while a singe house uses relatively little water, the great mass of houses doing up especially around southwest Idaho – estimated at upwards of 10,000 a year over the last decade – has really added to the pressure on water supplies.

Rural legislators slowly are losing their traditional clout in the Idaho Legislature. But they may see the structuring of Idaho’s water, electricity and rate system as a point to center in on when they reconvene in 2007.

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