H.R. 3538: Idaho Wilderness Water Resources Protection Act

H.R. 3538

Idaho Wilderness Water Resources Protection Act

January 27, 2010 (111th Congress, 1st Session)

Staff Contact

Floor Situation

H.R. 3538 is being considered on the floor on Wednesday, January 27, 2009, under a rule. This legislation was introduced by Rep. Michael Simpson (R-ID) on September 8, 2009, and referred to the Committee on Natural Resources, which reported the bill, as amended, by voice vote. On January 20, 2010, the bill failed on a suspension of the rules by a vote of 225-191. The legislation is now being considered on Wednesday, January 27, 2009, under a rule requiring a simple majority vote for passage.

Bill Summary

H.R. 3538 would authorize the Secretary of Interior to extend permits which allow the owners of certain water storage and diversion facilities on protected National Forest System land to operate water facilities under certain conditions. Under the bill, the Secretary would have to determine that a facility met the following requirements to receive a permit:

  1. Existed on the land prior to its designation as a unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
  2. Has been in continuous use and delivering water since the land was designated.
  3. The owner of the facility holds a valid water right for use of the water.
  4. It is not practicable or feasible to relocate the facility to land outside of the wilderness.

Under the special lease, the Secretary would have to allow the use of motorized vehicles as necessary to keep up the facilities.


Signed into law in 1964, the Wilderness Act defined federal "wilderness" as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." As the definition would suggest, federal wilderness areas are designated to preserve and protect federal land that has been determined to be especially pristine and untouched by human development. As such, use of National Wilderness is meant to be limited. Wilderness land is generally accessible to the public for recreational activities such as camping, hunting, hiking, and fishing. However, the use of any mechanized vehicles is strictly forbidden and new resource extraction such as water development, mining, logging, oil and gas exploration, and drilling are prohibit. Because of these tight land use restrictions, some Members have been concerned that designating new wilderness land could impede American energy resource exploration and development in the future and potentially infringe on private property use within the designation.

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness are two wilderness areas in central Idaho that were designated as federally protected in 1980 and 1964 respectively. According to press reports, there are 20 existing water facilities, including irrigation systems and a hydropower plant, located inside the two federal wildernesses. These water facilities existed before the areas were federally designated, however, the legislation designating these areas did not address the water facilities already in place. H.R. 3538 would authorize the Secretary to make special permit agreements with the owners these water facilities to allow for their continued use.

The legislation was defeated on January 20, 2009, in retaliation for a majority of Republicans voting against H.R. 3726, the Castle Nugent National Historic Site Establishment Act, which was defeated prior to the vote on the underlying bill. Democrats proceeded to vote against the Idaho Wilderness Water Resources Protection Act because it was sponsored by a Republican. The bill will now be considered under a rule, along with H.R. 3726.


According to CBO, H.R. 3538 "would have a negligible effect on the federal budget because any costs to process the permits would be paid by the permit holders."