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Idaho Enterprise

Idaho Water Curtailment

Jun 19, 2024 05:14PM ● By Allison Eliason

“I wouldn't be surprised if somebody doesn’t end up dead before this water fight is over.”  You could easily imagine that sentence to be quoted from some old western John Wayne movie, set in a time of the wild and uncivilized West that settled water disputes with hangings, rustled cattle and stolen lands.  But the truth is, a friend knee deep in the current Idaho water curtailment shared that grim sentiment with me just days ago.

Whether your source for headlines in the 10 o’clock news or Facebook, the plight of thousands of farmers and ranchers across Idaho has come to the forefront.  Their plea- Don’t turn off our water.

It’s simple to understand what they are asking.  Just months into their growing season, their water supply is threatened to be turned off, meaning that the crops they have already heavily invested so much in will yield next to nothing.  It means that there won’t be a product to contract and sell this season.  It means no income for their operations, many that are only hanging on by a thread.  It means that bank loan payments, power bills and so on will go unpaid and overdue.  It’s a terrifying prospect.

What isn’t so easy to understand is why so many farms’ water use is being curtailed.  Like any water dispute, it is complicated, emotional and difficult to quantify all of the moving and changing parts of the matter.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) has deemed senior water holders of the Twin Falls Canal Company (TFCC) short 74,100 shares.  To right the shortfall, junior water users are being told to curtail or shut off their water until the senior shares have been satisfied.

Idaho water share turns are fulfilled based on the “first in time, first in right” doctrine.  This simply states that land with water rights established earlier in time has first rights to use it.  Most senior water right holders have surface water rights that were established in the early 1900s when irrigation canals were developed.  As irrigation technology advanced through the decades, farmers began tapping into groundwater resources with wheel lines and pivots with their own more junior water rights being doled out. 

The two different users of water, the surface water irrigators that pulled water from the ditches and canals and the water pumpers that pulled water from the deep aquifers, seemed to be a great way to utilize the water sources Idaho had to provide, namely the Snake River and the Eastern Snake Plain aquifer (ESPA).  Although navigating the same lands in different ways, the water was considered two different sources with the division designated at the Milner dam eleven miles west of Burley, Idaho. 

Waters at and below the dam were primarily used as surface waters for irrigation, electricity via several hydroelectric dams, and city waters.  Above the dam, the water shares draw more from the aquifer accessed by wells for nearly every farm, city and dwelling.

Over time, however, it was easy to see that the aquifer and the water flowing in the Snake River were much more connected than believed.  As cities continued to develop, food processing establishments came in, and a greater boom in various farming operations occurred, the demand for subsurface water began to take its toll on the surface waters.

Not only was more water being pumped from the aquifer, but less was being put back  in to renew it.  In their attempt to be more efficient with their water use, pipelines, cement canals, and advanced irrigation technology, unknowingly reduced the amount of water that could be leached back into the aquifer.  This, coupled with years of low snowpack and drought, began depleting the underground water system.  The springs fed by the ESPA that would eventually empty into the Snake River in turn were also being depleted and turning up dry.

And with that problem arose another- the senior water holders downstream were being shorted their shares.

It's hard to fathom that a potato farm pumping their water hundreds of miles away from a sugar beet farm tapping into the canal waters was affecting their irrigation.  But with a water resource as massive as the ESPA, that is exactly what was happening.

As soon as the problem was identified, the IDWR, various canal companies, resource managers, water users and everyone in between began meeting to find a solution.  The task was enormous.  They had to find a way to recharge the aquifer to a sustainable level all the while satisfying as many water shares as possible, starting with those senior water holders downstream.

In 2016, an agreement was settled upon where junior water users (anyone with rights dating after March 31, 1954) would reduce their water use by 13% while also returning 240,000 acre feet of water back to the ESPA.  The agreement seemed feasible.  Farmers had the flexibility to cut back water however would best suit their operations.  They could leave certain pivots fallow, grow crops that required less water usage or simply put as little on their crops as possible.  In addition, they were instructed that they could average the amount of water returned to the aquifer across the years, meaning that in high water years they could pour more back in so that in leaner years they could give back less.

The plan seemed to be working and all parties were feeling satisfied.  The senior water holders had their water, the aquifer was being recharged and the junior shareholders still had enough to keep their operations running.  But it only worked until it didn’t.

The dry spell of 2021 and 2022 left water managers unsure if the 2016 agreement was sufficient.  Amending the settlement, the IDWR instructed that an average across years was no longer adequate.  In fact, beginning in 2024, an additional 1,200 acre feet of water was to be ran back into the ESPA, with the amount continuing to rise each subsequent year until the aquifer reaches the desired levels.

The plan no longer seemed feasible.

Simultaneously, senior water holders were calling that they weren’t receiving their full shares.  That is when IDWR identified the TFCC shortfall and the current battle broke out.  Whether it was intentional or not, Bingham Ground Water District, Bonneville-Jefferson Ground Water District, Jefferson-Clark Ground Water District, Magic Valley Ground Water District, Carey Valley Ground Water District and North Snake Ground Water District were found in non-compliance to the agreement.  

And their instructions were simple.  Get in line or their water would be turned off.  Some began slowing their water use, but most did not and the May 30 curtailment deadline rolled in.  Suddenly pumps were being red tagged and fines were being threatened and the loss of water wasn’t just a possibility but an eventuality.

The thought of thousands of acres without water and hundreds of crops not being harvested isn’t just a dooming future for Idaho farmers, but for Idahoans as a whole.  Idaho is the leading producer of potatoes, barley and alfalfa in the United States, alone.  Losing such crops would strike a heavy blow to Idaho's economy.  

Fortunately, concessions are beginning to be made.  A number of water districts have made the necessary adjustments to appease the IDWR, showing an act of good faith that has put a pause on the curtailment.  From the other side, the IDWR and the governor’s office have admitted that the 2016 agreement with its amendments is no longer a feasible plan and should be addressed.

With a new agreement on the horizon, it seems a lot of issues must be faced in order to satisfy the many farmers that feel their operations are being threatened.  The greatest concern is how is it possible to be short more than 74,000 shares in such a peak water year?  Have more shares been given than can actually be fulfilled, even in a good water year?  Is the problem really low water resources or is it poor resource management?  Is the issue at hand about protecting a valuable resource or is it about satisfying power players?

Personally, I feel like I have no answers and far too many questions.  But what I do know is that there is no resource or commodity worth fighting for more than water.  For the sake of all farmers, water users, and citizens of Idaho, I hope that a solution can be found before the actions and consequences of those in the fight don’t become so drastic as what my friend fears.  We might think we are a more civilized society than the old west days, but when it comes to fighting over water rights, we may still be just as primitive as they were.

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