Blackfoot to organize water advisory board

By Logan Ramsey; Post Register

BLACKFOOT — The City of Blackfoot is working to form a water advisory board in order to involve citizens in preparing to conserve water as the snowpack and the natural flow of the Snake River decreases over time. The first meeting was on March 24.

“We want citizen ownership of this,” said Blackfoot Mayor Marc Carroll.

Princeton Lee, Blackfoot Water superintendent, said the goal of the board will be “to try to get the citizens to conserve water or help us change the way we use and perceive water. I feel like that’s something that the citizens of Blackfoot or users of the water system should help us craft.”

This summer could be particularly hard on people who use irrigation with junior water rights as this is the second consecutive year of a drought. If this spring is a dry one, like it’s expected to be, junior water users could see curtailments of their water.

According to Russell Qualls, Ph.D., Idaho State climatologist, “… current reservoir storage is low and mountain snowpack is low as well, which may produce challenges for filling these reservoirs for spring and summer diversions.”

Qualls pointed out that early in the water year storms brought enough moisture to southern Idaho that the state drought committee recommended to the U.S. Drought Monitor to lessen the severity of the drought category from the September before. They will revisit the situation once the snow accumulation season ends and assess if the severity should be changed again, which is usually in early April.

“While it is unlikely that Idaho will see as high of temperatures as last summer, a possibly warmer, dryer spring may induce added stress on what is shaping up to be a limited water supply irrigation season based on current snowpack and reservoir storage conditions,” Qualls said.

As of March 15, the level of the American Falls reservoir is at 74% capacity, but the Palisades and Jackson Lake reservoirs are at 32% and 21% capacity, respectively.

Tony Olenichak’s responsibilities as watermaster for Water District #1 is to measure and distribute the water that is available, and he said irrigators with junior water rights could get curtailed if the spring is too dry.

“If we get below average precipitation for the next three months, you’re gonna see some water users that won’t make it through the season. They may plant their crops and they may start irrigating but by the time we get to the end of the summer there simply won’t be enough water to go around for everyone to finish off their crops,” Olenichak said.

Irrigators aren’t the only ones who should be thinking about ways to conserve water. While not likely, there’s some possibility of Blackfoot having its water rights curtailed as well. Any possible reductions in water usage would depend on how severe the curtailment is.

“While I’m not anticipating the city having its water curtailed, it is a possibility,” Lee said.

While Lee doesn’t see this as the most dire drought cycle in history, the population of Bingham County is expanding, which means water use will also expand. To pump more water, Blackfoot would need to acquire more water rights, which could take four to five years “if everything goes well,” Lee said.

“As more and more people start using the aquifer, we are pumping out more than what is going back in, so you start to deplete the resource of the aquifer,” Lee explained.

Many of the people moving to Idaho are coming from California and Arizona, partly seeking different politics and also partly because of the increasing water scarcity in those regions. Carroll lived in southern California until 1976 when he was 27 years old, and he remembers having to ration water. He said people would have to take turns watering their lawns, and they could get cited if they were caught with water running into their gutter.

The mayor doesn’t know when or if citizens of Blackfoot could see water curtailments, but he believes that it’s better to have a conservation plan in place before that point is reached.

From Lee’s own experience, he’s observed Idaho become increasingly more warm over the last 30 years.

“When I was a little kid, I remember wearing snow pants and snowsuits to go trick or treating. There was already snow on the ground, it was already cold, you had to bundle up. Now you can go trick-or-treating in your shorts or flip flops.”

And Lee’s observations are supported by research. Statewide data archived in NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information shows that average temperature has been rising in Idaho at a rate of about 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit per 100 years from 1895 to the present, but most of this increase has occurred since the 1950s.

Based on the findings in the {span}Fourth US Climate Assessment{span}, (Volume I, Chapter 3, Key Finding 1) it is likely that more than 90% of the global temperature increase may be attributed to human causes, and they find it extremely likely that more than half of the temperature increase is human caused.

And this increase in temperature is affecting snowpack levels, which normally replenishes the reservoirs. According to {span}the Natural Resources Conservation Service{span}, watersheds in the eastern and western thirds of southern Idaho presently have snowpack that is about 55% to 75% of the 1991-2020 median for March 15. This means that the current snowpack level is 25% to 45% below what it normally is.

According to the mayor, last fall was a dry season, and when the season changed from winter to spring there was a sudden melt of the snowpack. Instead of running off into the reservoirs, it soaked into the ground, but not deep enough to go through the aquifer, so the water was lost.

“Water is getting harder and harder to just use how we used to use it. It wasn’t a big deal, like I remember growing up and turning the water on, letting it run all day and run through the sprinkler. We’re to the point where situations like that aren’t sustainable anymore,” Lee said.

Both Carroll and Lee feel it’s important the city have a plan in place if the available water shrinks enough that if, for example, the Idaho Department of Water Resources tells them to shut off three of their wells.

“What will that look like? Do we want to be scrambling and trying to figure out how we’re going to do it or do we want to be prepared and say ‘Okay, we know what we’re going to do here. We’re going to do this,’ and we’ve had feedback from the community,” Lee said.

Lee believes it’s important that once the water advisory board is formed, the community provides them with feedback while there’s still time to prepare.

“Nobody cares about how the water gets there until it doesn’t get there anymore,” Lee said.