BURLEY — Across southern Idaho ground water pumpers are shifting their focus from maximizing production on a per-acre basis to a per acre-foot basis.
“Water is our limiting factor,” said Dean Stevenson, who farms near Rupert and is a member of the Magic Valley Groundwater District. The district is part of a long-term agreement with surface water users to reduce groundwater consumption by 240,000 acre-feet, or about 13 percent, annually. This is the second year of the agreement.
Each member of a groundwater district was allocated an amount of water based on priority date. Those priority dates are arranged by tiers with the top tier getting a larger allocation. Most farmers have some water that falls in all three tiers.
Members then have the option to decide if they want to enroll in the CREP (the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program), leave pivot corners fallow, turn off end guns, forgo fall irrigation or plant less water-thirsty crops.
More pumpers are taking a second look at CREP, a federal-state program intended to reduce ground water consumption for irrigate cropland. Landowners voluntarily retire land for a period of 15 years in exchange for annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to convert the enrolled land into permanent vegetative cover.
Approximately 17,780 acres have been enrolled through 177 contracts including 22 new contracts representing 1,333 acres this fall.
Hoping to entice more acres to enter the program, the Idaho Soil and Water Conservation Commission and Farm Service Agency has been lobbying to increase the rental rate to be more competitive. All new contracts signed after Oct. 1 will be paid at the rate of $160 per acre per year, up from the previous $130.
Russ Suchan also farms near Rupert and is part of the Magic Valley Groundwater District. He and his father enrolled 350 acres nine or ten years ago. District-wide, over 4,700 acres has been enrolled in CREP over 62 contracts since the program began 10 years ago.
That early enrollment has offset the water reductions they would have otherwise faced the last two growing seasons. But despite the water savings, he is unsure whether they will renew the contracts when they expire at the end of 15 years.
“It’s a good program from the standpoint of saving water and habitat,” Suchan said.
But getting approved grass species to grow under the contract has been a challenge. Crested wheatgrass is a proven hardy species, but the contract requires native species that can be difficult to get established.
Suchan did a dormant seeding and got a stand the first year, but the mix included a legume so he could not spray any herbicides to control weeds. And then the voles moved in. Native species remain green longer than the cheatgrass so the voles feast on the natives making it hard to maintain the stand.
Growers with new contracts this fall are having the same challenges finding grass species to plant that comply with the contract.
Economics will play a role in determining whether Suchan re-enrolls some or all of those CREP acres or whether he chooses to remove end guns or plant more grain.
He will have the option but Stevenson encourages pumpers with trust water or expansions to take a close look at CREP. Those water rights have a 1994 priority date and if the Idaho Department of Water Resources is forced to issue a curtailment order because the settlement agreement goals have not been met, those acres cannot be enrolled in CREP.
In addition to reducing groundwater consumption, pumpers have also been required to install new flow meters to track water usage. Stevenson estimates 85 to 90 percent of all pumps have the new flow meters across the district.
Suchan has meters on all his pumps. He had to replace old meters with new ones this year. To replace the flow meters on a large pump that supplies multiple pivots cost $9,000. “That’s a lot of four-dollar (per bushel) wheat,” he said.
Stevenson knows the agreement has been painful for many pumpers, but he believes the overwhelming majority are taking steps to reduce groundwater use.
“This is a long-term agreement. We must meet our obligations,” he said.