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Cleaning up: Push to monitor water quality of Snake River comes to the Idaho statehouse

BOISE — Just how clean is the Snake River?

That’s a question a coalition of stakeholders in the Magic Valley hope the Idaho Legislature will help them answer in the coming years.

A presentation to the House Resources & Conservation Committee by Twin Falls City Manager Travis Rothweiler this week was a first step in turning the state’s attention to the quality of water in the Snake River and elsewhere. A combination of city officials, canal companies, agricultural leaders and others from around south-central Idaho have come together in recent years in a push to better understand and address pollution in the portion of the Snake that runs through the Magic Valley — but first, they say, they need clearer data on exactly how dirty the river is.

Recharge efforts in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer last year easily surpassed the Idaho Water Resource Board’s annual goal, following a monumental agreement in 2015 to settle a longstanding dispute between surface water users and groundwater users. Next up for the state may be addressing pollution in the Snake River and other bodies of water around the state.

“We’ve been dealing a lot with quantity of water. Now we need to move to quality and get better numbers there,” said Rep. Clark Kauffman, a Republican from Filer who serves on the Resources & Conservation Committee. “I think it’s a natural progression for figuring out our water and taking care of our water.”

An initial nutrient assessment of the mid-Snake prompted by the Clean Water Act in the early 1990s led the state to set a target of reducing rooted macrophyte growth by 30 percent, especially in areas such as Gridley Bridge and Crystal Springs. Since then, there haven’t been any follow-up studies to see what effect those initial reduction efforts have had. Now, Twin Falls city officials and other members of the Southern Idaho Water Quality Coalition would like to see the state take steps to more closely monitor the water quality of that particular portion of the river.

“We have a strong belief that we’re really just a starting point,” Jason Brown, an environmental engineer with the city of Twin Falls, told the committee Tuesday. “Water quality is a state issue, not just a regional issue.”

Cleaning up the river in the growing Magic Valley, particularly as industries from around the world move into Twin Falls and big agriculture flourishes, will likely not be an easy task. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed 99 percent reductions in the limit for Twin Falls and Jerome, 98 percent for Filer, Hagerman, and Hansen, and 97 percent for Buhl.

“The water quality is more than just the cities and the fish farms,” Kauffman said. “Which means ag’s going to have to get a little more involved too.”

Meanwhile, the Idaho Conservation League has launched a separate campaign to clean up the Snake, with the goal of making the river “swimmable and fishable” again.

“I think the simple fact that there is a coalition that has come together is an indicator of progress,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, government relations director for the ICL. “There’s really a need to look more holistically at the Snake River as a whole and say, what issues are we dealing with?”

Other Magic Valley lawmakers on the Resources & Conservation Committee told the Times-News they agree there is a need for better monitoring of the water quality of the Snake.

“They certainly need to start monitoring that river,” said Rep. Fred Wood, a Republican from Burley. “It’s just not the city of Twin Falls that needs to start doing that, but everybody along that river.

“They’re pretty much between a rock and a hard place,” Wood added. “A lot of people are going to be up and down that river in the coming weeks and months and years.”

Rep. Laurie Lickley, a Republican from Jerome, said she believes the state should first continue focusing on funding its recharge efforts.

“That being said, I think we can bring a broader group of people together for the Southern Idaho Water Quality Coalition,” Lickley said. “I think it’s important to note that clean water really is extremely important to all of us, whether we’re farmers, recreators, or even consumers.”

The push to monitor water quality was praised by Rep. Sally Toone, a Democrat from Gooding, who thanked the Twin Falls city officials for bringing the issue to the Legislature’s attention following the presentation Tuesday.

“It is going to take all of us to make sure that it’s around for the next generation,” Toone said. “We have to safeguard all of the issues coming up and we all have to have that conversation.”

Oppenheimer said that while he would like to see the state provide funding for monitoring this year, he viewed the presentation Tuesday as a significant step in itself.

“I think at this point there’s a recognition that there’s a problem, identifying what that is, and laying out some steps to better understand and comprehend it,” he said. “I think that’s the best we’re going to get out of this session.”

Crisis escalates in Virginia; top 3 Dems under fire

RICHMOND, Va. — The political crisis in Virginia spun out of control Wednesday when the state’s attorney general confessed to putting on blackface in the 1980s and a woman went public with detailed allegations of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor.

With Gov. Ralph Northam’s career already hanging by a thread over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook, the day’s developments threatened to take down all three of Virginia’s top elected officials, all of them Democrats.

The twin scandals began with Attorney General Mark Herring issuing a statement acknowledging he wore brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a rapper during a party when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia.

Herring — who had previously called on Northam to resign and was planning to run for governor himself in 2021 — apologized for his “callous” behavior and said that the days ahead “will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve.”

The 57-year-old Herring came clean after rumors about the existence of a blackface photo of him began circulating at the Capitol, though he made no mention of a picture Wednesday.

Then, within hours, Vanessa Tyson, the California woman whose sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax surfaced earlier this week, put out a detailed statement saying Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him in a hotel room in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

The Associated Press typically does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted, but Tyson issued the statement in her name.

Tyson, a 42-year-old political scientist who is on a fellowship at Stanford University and specializes in the political discourse of sexual assault, said, “I have no political motive. I am a proud Democrat.”

“Mr. Fairfax has tried to brand me as a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions, and has threatened litigation,” she said. “Given his false assertions, I’m compelled to make clear what happened.”

Fairfax — who is in line to become governor if Northam resigns — has repeatedly denied her allegations, saying that the encounter was consensual and that he is the victim of a strategically timed political smear.

“At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions, neither during that encounter, nor during the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past 15 years,” he said in a statement.

Tyson said she suffered “deep humiliation and shame” and stayed quiet about the allegations as she pursued her career, but by late 2017, as the #MeToo movement took shape and after she saw an article about Fairfax’s campaign, she took her story to The Washington Post, which decided months later not to publish a story.

The National Organization for Women immediately called on Fairfax to resign, saying, “Her story is horrifying, compelling and clear as day — and we believe her.”

The string of scandals that began when the yearbook picture came to light last Friday could have a domino effect on Virginia state government: If Northam and Fairfax fall, Herring would be next in line to become governor. After Herring comes House Speaker Kirk Cox, a conservative Republican.

At the Capitol, lawmakers were dumbstruck over the day’s fast-breaking developments, with Democratic Sen. Barbara Favola saying, “I have to take a breath and think about this. This is moving way too quickly.” GOP House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said it would be “reckless” to comment. “There’s just too much flying around,” he said.

The chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, Del. Lamont Bagby, said, “We’ve got a lot to digest.”

Cox issued a statement late Wednesday calling the allegations against Fairfax “extremely serious” and said they need a “full airing of facts.” Cox also urged Herring to “adhere to the standard he has set for others,” a nod to Herring’s previous call that Northam resign.

Northam has come under pressure from nearly the entire Democratic establishment to resign after the discovery of a photo on his profile page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.

The governor initially admitted he was in the photo without saying which costume he was wearing, then denied it a day later. But he acknowledged he once used shoe polish to blacken his face and look like Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.

Herring came down hard on Northam when the yearbook photo surfaced, condemning it as “indefensible,” and “profoundly offensive.” He said it was no longer possible for Northam to lead the state.

On Wednesday, though, Herring confessed that he and two friends dressed up to look like rappers, admitting: “It sounds ridiculous even now writing it.”

“That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others,” he said. But he added: “This conduct is in no way reflective of the man I have become in the nearly 40 years since.”

Twin Falls man arrested for drug trafficking, unlawful possession of firearm

TWIN FALLS — Police were investigating a stabbing on Monday evening when they discovered the victim’s friend had drugs in his car, according to court documents.

Jake Bryan Diaz Deleon, 26, was inside the victim’s Ash Street apartment during the police investigation, according to the documents. Officers found the front door to the residence kicked in and there was a large amount of blood in the apartment. The victim was at St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center with multiple stab wounds and had told police that two people broke into his apartment and attacked him.

Diaz Deleon said he had received a phone call from the victim’s girlfriend and had taken the man to the hospital in his car. The police officer on scene said he needed to photograph the interior of Diaz Deleon’s vehicle because it had blood in the passenger seat.

Police had suspicions of drug activity, and a drug dog alerted police to the odor of illegal drugs in Diaz Deleon’s vehicle, according to the documents. Diaz Deleon later admitted to the officer that he had taken a plastic bag from the residence and hid it under the driver’s seat of the vehicle.

Officers were given permission to search the vehicle without a warrant. They found the plastic garbage bag under the driver’s seat. Inside it was a digital scale and multiple bags of heroin, each containing more than 8 grams.

Also in the vehicle was a Springfield 9mm handgun with a magazine loaded with 15 bullets. Diaz Deleon was convicted of possession of a controlled substance in 2014 and is prohibited from possessing firearms, police said.

Diaz Deleon was arrested on a felony charge of unlawful possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, felony concealment of evidence, and felony trafficking heroin. His bail was set at $250,000 and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Feb. 15.

Detective Brandi Matthews with the Twin Falls Police Department said Diaz Deleon is a friend of the victim and was not directly involved with the stabbing at all. The stabbing is still being investigated.

If you do one thing

If you do one thing: A community dance will feature music by the Shadows Band from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Snake River Elks Lodge, 412 E. 200 S., Jerome. Admission is $5.

Trump plans rally, Pelosi seeks deal as wall deadline nears

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi struck starkly different tones in their border security standoff Wednesday, as Trump planned a rally in a Texas border city he says exemplifies the need for a wall and Pelosi said she’d back any bipartisan deal congressional bargainers produce.

The contrasting pathways — with Trump set to appear before raucous supporters and Pelosi signaling compromise — came with just over a week until a Feb. 15 deadline for negotiators to reach agreement or potentially face a renewed partial government shutdown. House-Senate bargainers say their talks have become increasingly substantive and some lawmakers — including Pelosi herself — expressed hopes that negotiators might produce an accord as soon as Friday.

Participants said the two sides were narrowing differences in their talks. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., a negotiator, said Democrats were showing some flexibility in the semantic dispute over the type of physical barriers they would accept while Republicans seemed potentially willing to limit where the structures might be built.

“That basically sets the stage for a very reasonable, flexible negotiation,” he said. Other unresolved questions include the amount to be spent on border security, and whether — as Democrats have proposed — to reduce the number of detention beds for migrants available to the federal Immigration and

Customs Enforcement agency, Fleischmann said.

“If they come up with a bipartisan agreement, I’m happy to support it,” Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters. She said she hoped Trump would take “the same hands off” approach.

Democrats have been in a position of strength in the talks, after Republicans lost House control in November’s elections, Trump forced a record 35-day federal shutdown and surrendered without getting $5.7 billion he’s demanded for a wall.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has also given bargainers a green light to seek a deal that he’s said he hopes Trump would find “worth signing.”

If Pelosi and McConnell embrace a bipartisan agreement, it could isolate Trump and pressure him to accept it without re-escalating the fight. Trump has threatened a new shutdown or a declaration of a national emergency to access other budget funds if he’s not satisfied with a deal — steps members of both parties oppose.

Bargainers met Wednesday privately for nearly two hours with federal border patrol and customs officials to hear their recommendations on how to secure the Southwest border. But several lawmakers emerged with differing conclusions.

No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin said lawmakers were told the top priority was technology that could screen vehicles for drugs or migrants at border ports of entry.

“They don’t rule out barriers, they don’t rule out fencing, but that isn’t the first priority,” Durbin told reporters.

But Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said the officials suggested a three-pronged approach using barriers, technology and personnel. He said the closed-door session was constructive.

“The dialogue is good. The tone is good. We’re talking about substance,” Shelby said.

He also said that in a phone conversation with Pelosi, “I just said, ‘Look, can we reach a yes on this in any way or are we wasting our time.’ She said, ‘No, keep working together,’ and she would like to see a legislative solution, the sooner the better.”

In comments that suggested a potential avenue for agreement, some lawmakers suggested that giving local officials a say would be pivotal.

“We can probably get there on some sort of enhanced barriers with local input,” said another negotiator, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas.

Democrats have proposed spending as much as $1.6 billion for border security including some types of physical barriers, but it remains unclear how much more money they’d accept as part of a deal. Cuellar said $5.7 billion for the wall is “not going to happen.”

Meanwhile, the White House said Trump will hold his first campaign rally of the year next Monday in El Paso, Texas. His campaign manager, Brad Parscale, tweeted that the rally will be held “less than 1000 feet from the successful border fence that keeps El Paso safe!”

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Trump cited El Paso as once having “extremely high rates of violent crime. He asserted that with its wall, “El Paso is one of the safest cities in our country.”

In fact, El Paso has never been considered one of the nation’s most dangerous cities and its trends in violent crime mirror national swings.

In 2005, the city had a murder rate of 2.5 for every 100,000 residents, compared with a national rate of 5.6. By 2010 after the wall was built, El Paso’s murder rate had dropped to 0.9 for every 100,000 residents, compared with a national average of 4.8.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, tweeted that “El Paso has been one of the safest cities in the nation long before the wall was built in 2008. #WallsDontWork.”

UPDATE: Shopko to close Twin Falls store

TWIN FALLS — Shopko says it will be closing its store in the Magic Valley Mall later this year.

In a list of store closures online, the Shopko at 1649 Pole Line Road E. is slated to have its last day of business May 12. The company had initially posted a list of around 100 closing stores in mid-January, and the Twin Falls store was not among them.

Shopko then added another 139 store closures on Wednesday as it restructures after filing for bankruptcy, a company spokesman told the Times-News. The company at one point had more than 360 stores in 26 states, but plans to go forward with around 120.

“It became more apparent to us that in order to find someone that would be willing to buy us, we would need to operate in a smaller footprint,” spokesman Tucker Elcock said.

The decision to close the Twin Falls store would have been made using a variety of factors, including competition and the numbers of stores in the region, he said. The store will begin a liquidation sale shortly.

Only five stores in Idaho were included on the go-forward list as of Wednesday.

The Twin Falls Shopko’s closing will be yet another big change for the Magic Valley Mall, which last year said goodbye to anchor stores Macy’s and Sears — with Macy’s closing in March and Sears in early April.

The former Macy’s location since became home to a Hobby Lobby in September, and the Sears location is under contract for another retailer yet to be announced, a mall official previously told the Times-News.

Meanwhile, the Magic Valley Mall in October completed a nearly $3 million remodel, which added several indoor “parks” and replaced its floors and furnishings. Woodbury Corp. Regional Manager Brent White had told the Times-News the mall was looking forward to a new era where it would no longer be 80-percent retail, but have more entertainment and dining options.

Most recently, the mall celebrated a major milestone with the opening of Olive Garden in January. The company has been trying to recruit the restaurant for years.

The Magic Valley Mall issued the following statement about the Shopko closures on Thursday morning:

“With the recent news of Shopko closures nationwide, including later this year at Magic Valley Mall, we will continue to introduce new retail, entertainment, dining and beverage options to the community. Recent new stores such as Hobby Lobby and Olive Garden have been very well received by the Magic Valley community, and this announcement creates a new opportunity to continue to meet current consumer tastes.”