Otter’s water summit should be open to all

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

No public resource is more important to Idaho than water.

It’s unacceptable, then, for Gov. Butch Otter to plan nearly half a day of closed meetings at his water summit next week. It’s also troubling to see a guest list heavy on traditional rural water users and skimpy on the urban interests that will reshape Idaho water use in the future.

A public resource should be discussed in an all-inclusive public forum, not in what an Otter news release describes as a series of “closed-door caucuses and private discussions.”

There’s nothing illegal about the closed meetings. Otter and his tightly structured group of invitees — 18 active negotiators and 20 “alternates” — do not comprise a public agency, so the Idaho Open Meeting Law does not apply.

However, there’s a considerable difference between what’s legal and what’s good policy. Closed sessions invite skepticism. The itinerary — closed meetings, sandwiched by public sessions in the morning and late afternoon — suggests the open meetings are window dressing, with the real discussions held behind closed doors.

In a sense, the closed sessions are the guts of the summit, scheduled for Tuesday in Burley. The closed meetings will allow water users to hold “frank discussions” about stretching a scant water supply in 2007, interim state Department of Water Resources Director David Tuthill said Tuesday.

“Those solutions are urgently needed,” he said. “There presently is not enough water for all uses.”

This water is not private property, however — as closed negotiations imply.

Another problem transcends this year’s crisis. Otter’s invitation-only process gives short shrift to urban and industrial users, demands that will grow as Idaho grows.

Otter’s guest list skews heavily to rural water users and ag groups, with some local elected officials and staffers and utility reps in the mix. Tuthill says the summit will involve groups that are new to the water debate. Still, of the 38 negotiators and alternates, only three come from Ada County, and none come from Canyon County.

This is, make no mistake, a rural summit. This may adequately represent the current demand for water in a state where ag accounts for 87.8 percent of use. This also represents the current struggle, pitting Idahoans who hold old rights for canal and spring water against Idahoans who hold newer rights to water from the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.

It takes no imagination and little foresight to see that the next round of water wars could center on the tension between rural and urban use. Otter need only look to the south, where a 280-mile pipeline is proposed to meet Las Vegas’ ever-expanding municipal thirst, and Utah is seeking a 120-mile pipeline to water the growing city of St. George.

Closed caucuses between current water users do little to instill public trust — and do little to prevent another round of contentious water battles in the future.

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

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