Idaho Department of Water Resources won’t shut off groundwater users – at this point

By Clark Corbin; Idaho Capital Sun

The south fork of the Snake River runs for more than 60 miles across southeastern Idaho. (Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management)

The Idaho Department of Water Resources won’t be shutting off the water for hundreds of groundwater users pumping off the Eastern Snake Plan Aquifer in Idaho at this point in the summer.

Last week, Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman found that there was no water demand shortfall for surface water users based on mid-summer water supplies and crop demand, the department announced in a press release issued Thursday. As a result of Spackman’s decision, it will not be necessary to curtail, or shut off the water, for the junior groundwater users, according to the press release.

That’s good news for groundwater users, at least in the short term.

Back in April, Spackman issued a water methodology order that contained a curtailment notice that anticipated a 75,000 acre-foot shortfall would occur to senior surface water users’ waters supplies. That would have meant about 900 Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer junior groundwater users who were not participating in an approved mitigation plan would be subject to curtailment.

However, Spackman put the decision on hold and scheduled public hearings for June to get feedback from affected water users.

Groundwater users said they are expecting another update in August and the situation may change again at that point if demand for water increases.

Based on evidence and feedback from those June hearings, Spackman issued the new methodology order last week that changed the methods used in calculations. After applying those new methods to this year’s hydrologic and climate conditions, the department found there wasn’t a shortfall and there would be no need for curtailment at this point.

“The as-applied order found that there was no injury to any of the seven members of the Surface Water Coalition,” the Idaho Department of Water Resources wrote in its press release. “(Spackman) found that there would be no water demand shortfall for any of them, based on the mid-summer water supplies and crop demand.”

Under Idaho law, water issues are governed by what is called the prior appropriation doctrine of “first in time, first in right.” Put another way, that means that when there is not enough water to go around, the older, or senior, water rights holders have priority over the more recent, or junior, water rights holders.

In this case, the surface rights water holders, which includes several canal companies and irrigation districts, hold senior water rights. The groundwater users, which include ground water districts such as the Bingham Groundwater District and farmers, corporations and municipalities like the city of Blackfoot, hold junior water rights.

“The department must periodically update the numerous factors involved in our methodology order calculations to ensure it adequately protects the senior water users,” Idaho Department of Water Resources Deputy Director Mat Weaver said in a written statement Thursday.

Idaho groundwater users still face anxiety over water issues

Alan Jackson, district manager of the Bingham Ground Water District, said Spackman’s decision finding there isn’t a mid-summer water shortfall at this point was expected.

“We kind of anticipated what the outcome would be with the order because of the milder spring we’ve had and the early summer,” Jackson said in a telephone interview. “The actual demand was less than predicted.”

Still, Jackson said there is plenty of anxiety among hundreds of groundwater users. Jackson said the Idaho Department of Water Resources will issue another update in August and ground water users could be subject to curtailment if the situation reverses itself and there is a higher-than-normal demand for crop water by that point.

“There is nobody resting easy at this point, because in six weeks this could all come back.  … It is an easy swing to go back to where there is an injury, and we are facing a massive curtailment,” Jackson said.

An injury is a term that the department and water users use to describe the impact, or shortfall, to water users.

The Bingham Ground Water District includes about 150,000 acres of groundwater irrigated land. The district was facing about 105,000 of those acres being curtailed under the April methodology order before Spackman found there was no mid-summer shortfall, Jackson said.

The impact of having water cut off for those users would be devastating throughout the state and region, Jackson said. The Bingham Ground Water District commissioned an economic impact study that showed there would be a $290 million impact through lost household income if the district’s groundwater users were curtailed. Jackson said farmers and agriculture users would be hit hard, but the impact would be felt throughout the region.

“It would be big,” Jackson said. “You would be losing tens of thousands of acres of potatoes. Those potato contracts can’t be filled anywhere else.”

This year, the Bingham Ground Water District collectively acquired water storage leases to cover any potential shortfall for surface water users and avoid curtailment, Jackson said. The district is holding on to those leases even though Spackman found there wasn’t a shortfall in July because the situation could change by August, Jackson said.

Groundwater users are also bracing for a dry year in the future when there isn’t enough water available for storage leases to cover any shortfalls, and he said it is stressful and difficult to operate under that uncertainty.

“That’s our big fear, when there is a big injury and there isn’t enough water available to mitigate that injury,” Jackson said.

Stil Jackson knows that groundwater users are far from alone in facing anxiety over water in Idaho and the West.

“Groundwater users are fairly new to the game,” Jackson said. “So the surface water users kind of look at us and smile because they say, ‘this is what we deal with every year, we don’t know what our water supply is going to be.’”

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