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Irrigation meters: ESPA groundwater pumpers face April 1 deadline to install flow meters

TWIN FALLS — An approaching deadline for groundwater pumpers to install flow meters at their wells has irrigation vendors scrambling.

Tuesday morning, a welding crew from Farmore Irrigation of Idaho installed a meter at a farm south of Wendell.

“We’ve installed hundreds of these,” said Troy Chandler, manager of Farmore, a division of Standley & Co. The meters measure the amount of water pumped from the wells.

Nearly three years ago, surface-water users and groundwater users reached a monumental agreement to replenish the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, which had reached its lowest levels since 1912. Simply put, the ongoing plan combines state-funded recharge with a 13 percent reduction in consumptive groundwater use to bring the aquifer back to healthy levels.

The goal is to leave an additional 240,000 acre-feet in the aquifer each year.

“We nearly reached a point of no return,” Twin Falls Canal Co. General Manager Brian Olmstead told the Times-News at the time. “We need to put more back into the aquifer and take less out.”

To seal the deal, the Idaho Department of Water Resources ordered groundwater users on the ESPA from Idaho Falls to Wendell to install flow meters. Some 5,400 groundwater wells in the ESPA region are subject to the requirement, IDWR Deputy Director Mathew Weaver said in a recent statement. Domestic and livestock water wells, and small irrigation wells servicing less than five acres are exempt.

The deadline to install meters is just a month away.

“Installation of flow meters is a vital part of the reduction plans,” said Nathan Erickson, IDWR watermaster for two water districts near Twin Falls. “Without good measuring devices, groundwater users won’t know how much water they are using.”

Any groundwater user not in compliance by April 1 could be curtailed, Erickson said Monday. So far, about 60 percent of the required groundwater users have installed meters. In the Magic Valley, about 70 percent of groundwater pumpers are in compliance. But that still leaves several thousand wells to go.

The cost averages about $2,500 per meter including installation, Chandler said. The meters are installed at the pump, so all water coming out of the ground is measured.

How did we get here?

When crop irrigation began in southern Idaho more than a century ago, farmers flooded fields with water diverted from the Snake River. Soil moisture not used by the crops seeped into the ground, artificially raising the water level in the ESPA. As groundwater levels rose, more and more farmers tapped into the aquifer to water their crops.

Later, increasingly efficient farming methods nearly eliminated water seepage into the aquifer, but groundwater users kept pumping, sending the aquifer into a downward spiral. Eventually, the aquifer stopped feeding springs that used to provide irrigation water to holders of senior water rights.

The seven largest irrigation districts in the Surface Water Coalition — A&B Irrigation District, American Falls Reservoir District, Burley Irrigation District, Milner Irrigation District, Minidoka Irrigation District, North Side Canal Co. and Twin Falls Canal Co. — made a water call on ESPA groundwater users with junior rights in 2005, but curtailment was averted until April 2015 when the IDWR issued a mitigation order. Groundwater users failed to come up with enough water to mitigate for an 89,000-acre-foot obligation to surface-water irrigators by a May 1, 2015, deadline.

That’s when Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, a Republican from Oakley, brought both sides together to hammer out a deal. “Water is the single most important natural resource in the state,” Bedke wrote in an opinion piece to the Times-News.

The April 1 deadline shouldn’t be a surprise, said James Cefalo, watermaster for a large area in Eastern Idaho. IDWR ordered the installation of flow meters two years ago.

Certain irrigation systems with a single well pumping into a single pivot with no end gun may apply for a variance before the deadline, Cefalo said.

Also, grant money is available for pumpers in some groundwater districts, said Lynn Tominaga, executive director of Idaho Ground Water Appropriators Inc. “Hopefully, we’ll have everyone in compliance by April 1,” Erickson said. “If not, those pumpers will need to present the water department with a plan to get in compliance.”

College of Southern Idaho hires new coordinator to help veterans on campus

TWIN FALLS — After 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, Brian O’Rorke wants to help his fellow veterans navigate college.

He started Feb. 1 as the College of Southern Idaho‘s first veterans advocacy coordinator. He helps connect students with resources and other veterans on campus.

About a year ago, an employee in the registrar’s office who was handling the certification of veterans benefits under the GI Bill left the position. “At that time, the veteran students voiced a desire to have someone as their advocate, someone they could go to for more than just certifying benefits,” CSI registrar Michele McFarlane said.

CSI administrators talked about the topic. They decided to move the certification of veterans benefits to the financial aid department and to create a position that’s “an advocate outside of the finances,” McFarlane said.

CSI’s student body includes about 150 veterans, 92 of whom receive educational benefits or their beneficiaries do. As a community college, there’s a wide age range, from “the Vietnam War clear up to Afghanistan and the current Iraq conflict and everything in between,” McFarlane said.

CSI posted the veterans coordinator job in September. After an application and interview process, O’Rorke was hired. He said it’s an awesome opportunity to work with veterans and their families, and to help them have a good experience at CSI.

“I love my fellow veterans,” he said. “As you transition out of the military, a lot of the problems that veterans may have — including me — is not having a connection with fellow veterans.”

He wants to help bridge that gap.

O’Rorke officially retires Thursday from the U.S. Air Force, where he served as a fighter aircraft weapons maintainer. He was stationed at the Mountain Home Air Force Base a couple of times throughout his career, as well as in Europe and Asia.

As CSI’s new veterans coordinator, “first and foremost, I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel in terms of the support systems,” he said, adding CSI was offering great services. But he wants to be the person students go to for help.

A lot of the veterans get disoriented, especially when they come straight out of the U.S. Armed Forces and are confused about benefits, O’Rorke said.

Ninety percent of the frustration with enrolling in college is red tape, he said. O’Rorke helps out in whatever way he can, including providing checklists for students, walking them through the steps personally they’ll need to take and helping them apply on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ website for educational benefits.

“The other goal is to connect the veterans together,” O’Rorke said. “There’s a disorientation when you come out into civilian life, and that’s compounded by the educational system. I wanted them to have a person to go to to advocate.”

A big part of his job is communicating efficiently with veterans at CSI, he said. He revamped a veterans newsletter and emails students about campus events coming up, such as elections for CSI’s Veterans Club.

McFarlane said that one of the biggest needs is to help veterans find community similar to the sense of camaraderie they feel while serving.

“We didn’t have anything for veterans to fill that void when they left the military,” he said. “Brian has a unique skill set to provide that and is helping guide them along their educational journey.”

If you do one thing

If you do one thing: Magic Valley Singles Square Dance Club will start a new class of square dancing lessons for beginners at 7 p.m. at the Jerome Senior Center, 520 N. Lincoln Ave. First lesson is free.

Idaho lawmakers spike governor's health care plan

BOISE — Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s legislative proposal to provide health care to some of the state’s poorest residents came to a halt Feb. 27 after it failed to generate enough support inside the GOP-dominant Statehouse.

Idaho’s House on Tuesday agreed to send Otter’s bill back to committee rather than ask representatives to vote on the merits of the bill and publicly state how they stand on the proposal.

Doing so signals for the sixth year in a row that GOP lawmakers once again have no appetite to address the state’s so-called Medicaid gap population before the end of the legislative session — particularly in a year where every state lawmaker is up for re-election in May.

“I know this is difficult,” said House Health and Welfare Chairman Fred Wood, a Republican who asked for the bill be returned to his committee. “I know 75 percent of the people in Idaho feel like the Legislature should do something, but unfortunately this doesn’t appear to be what we can get the votes at this point in time.”

Wood said he agreed to rescind the bill after consulting with legislative leaders and Otter, also a Republican, earlier that morning.

About 78,000 working Idahoans are believed to be in the gap population that earns too much to qualify for Medicaid, but too little to qualify for insurance subsidies.

Idaho could resolve this gap population by expanding Medicaid eligibility, as allowed under the Affordable Care Act, but lawmakers have repeatedly rejected such efforts.

“How can we know the votes aren’t there unless we take a vote? I know that my entire caucus is there,” said House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, a Democrat from Boise, in arguing against pulling the bill off the House floor. “This is deeply disappointing.”

Just 15 of 68 lawmakers voted against sending the bill back to committee: all 11 House Democrats and four Republicans.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, a Republican, told reporters after the House adjourned said the bill did not have enough to secure a simple majority even with the help of the Democrats, but declined to say exact how many votes the measure lacked.

“Every year we have people come in to testify and cry,” said Rep. Christy Perry, a Republican who is also running for the open 1st Congressional District seat. “I do believe after six years of work, that those people and the state of Idaho deserve a vote on this bill.”

Rep. Eric Redman, a Republican who is retiring this year, added that lawmakers have no excuse to ignore the Medicaid gap population particularly because the majority of the Legislature has access to state-funded health care insurance.

Otter’s bill would have provided coverage to roughly half of the health coverage gap population by seeking two federal waivers.

One waiver would allow low-income individuals to qualify for subsidies available to higher-income individuals. The other would expand Medicaid eligibility to pay for 12 serious and costly medical conditions.

The plan was to shift an estimated $200 million in medical claims from the private insurance market to the federal government, allowing private insurance premiums to be reduced by about 20 percent.

Otter’s spokesman said in an email Tuesday that the governor is currently traveling in Washington D.C. and did not immediately have a comment on the House’s decision.

Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian via AP  

Authorities and demonstrators wait at the Narrows roadblock near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge February 11, 2016 near Burns, Oregon.

Gooding police detain student after school shooting threat

GOODING — Gooding police detained a middle school student Tuesday and charges are pending after the boy reportedly made a school shooting threat.

Police were notified late Monday night about a possible threat at the Gooding Elementary School and Gooding Middle School campus, Police Chief Dave Fisher said.

The student was detained Tuesday morning when he arrived at school.

“The student who made the threat was identified, detained immediately after getting off of the school bus, and searched for any weapons,” the Gooding Police Department said in a statement on its Facebook page. No weapons were found.

The student was suspended and isn’t at school, Fisher said, and charges are pending. The boy has had ongoing issues and police have been dealing with him for the last several weeks, he added.

As students arrived Tuesday morning at Gooding’s three school campuses, there was a police presence and only one entrance was open at each school.

The soft lockdown was lifted later that morning, and there’s no longer an active threat to the safety of students and school employees, police said in a statement. Schools resumed normal activities.

Gooding School District Superintendent Spencer Larsen wasn’t immediately available to comment Tuesday. But in a statement on the Gooding School District’s Facebook page, he wrote: “Officers apprehended the student in question as he exited the bus. No weapons were found in his bag, on his person, or in his locker. The student is not in school and there is no active threats to students or the school.”

In Wendell, all three schools went into a modified lockdown Tuesday morning — meaning children stayed in their classrooms and school building doors were locked — after a social media message threatened violence toward an individual student.

The Gooding County Sheriff’s Office determined the threat wasn’t credible before the school day started, Wendell School District Superintendent Greg Lowe said. But schools stayed in a lockdown until about 9 a.m. as an emergency response drill. “We used it as a learning experience.”

Sheriff’s deputies were at Wendell Middle School and Wendell High School as students arrived at school. The school district sent out a text message alert to school employees and parents.

The social media message threatening violence was sent by a cousin of a Wendell student, Lowe said. Sheriff’s deputies are working to figure out where the person lives, he said, but they’re likely from either Washington or Nevada.

The Gooding and Wendell incidents are the latest in a string of school threats affecting Magic Valley schools following a Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla. high school, where 17 people were killed.

Last week, Mini-Cassia schools dealt with four days of social media threats. On Thursday, local and state law enforcement swept Declo High School after a threat mentioning a bomb at the school was posted on an Instagram account.

In Twin Falls, police served a warrant for the arrest of a boy they say pulled a gun on students of Magic Valley High School at an intersection not far from campus. The incident happened after an argument between two students continued when classes dismissed, Twin Falls police said in a Friday statement.

A separate teenager, a 17-year-old, has been charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, police said. Authorities would not disclose the names of the people involved.

Jerome police announced Friday a social media threat toward a Jerome High School student was false and “no actual, serious threat was present.” Filer High School was placed on a soft lockdown Friday afternoon after a Snapchat message depicted a person students knew driving with a gun.