Ketchum joins coalition to help preserve water sources

By Andrew Guckes; Idaho Mountain Express

On Monday Ketchum became the final city in the Wood River Valley to approve a term sheet proposed by the Idaho Department of Water Resources that requires each party to put forth funds to combat water shortages and help preserve groundwater aquifers in the area.

The deal includes Sun Valley Co. and the Sun Valley Water and Sewer District, in addition to the cities of Ketchum, Sun Valley, Hailey and Bellevue. For the next three years, each of those parties will contribute $10 per acre-foot of groundwater diversions to the newly formed Conservation, Infrastructure and Efficiency Fund, which will be managed by a specially formed committee. They have agreed to also pay $3.60 per acre-foot of groundwater diversions to cloud-seeding projects that directly benefit Basin 37, the water district that includes the areas around the Big and Little Wood rivers. The exact amount of funds contributed will be reevaluated every five years based on rolling averages of groundwater diversions in each designated area.

An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons, the amount that would cover one acre of land with one foot of water. According to state records, the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley each pump around 1 billion gallons of groundwater per year.

In all, Wood River Valley jurisdictions will contribute around $100,000 to the fund based on pumping rates, Idaho Department of Water Resources Compliance Bureau Chief Tim Luke said in January.

The general purpose of the funds, according to a memo released by Ketchum’s attorneys, is to “fund infrastructure and efficiency improvements in water systems in the basin.” Surface-water diversions and agricultural irrigation groundwater pumping are the largest contributors to runoff in Silver Creek and Big Wood and Little Wood rivers, apart from naturally occurring runoff events, it notes.

The process began in June 2021. It brought together regional water stakeholders to discuss the potential pumping of water at a site south of Bellevue in order to offset the unusually dry weather in Blaine County in the preceding months. Talks for a mitigation plan began, and soon came an order by the director of the IDWR that all groundwater users in Basin 37 must participate in negotiations for a groundwater management plan. The original goal was for the plan to be completed by December 2021.

The push and pull between groundwater and surface water rights has been an issue in Idaho since the 1980s, when the IDWR determined that the two types of water sources are linked, and that the overuse of groundwater can deplete surface water. In 1994, the IDWR adopted so-called “conjunctive management rules” to better manage the relationship between these two types of water-rights holders. However, the rules have not solved the management problems.

Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue have relied on groundwater pumping for their municipal water supply for decades. As dry stretches become longer and more frequent across the West, Blaine County cities will likely be faced with potential shortages.

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