Growth Puts Pressure on Wood River Valley's Water Supply

With the Magic Valley's water disputes largely settled for now, the focus is turning north to Blaine County.
2012-06-19T02:05:00Z Growth Puts Pressure on Wood River Valley's Water SupplyBy Kimberlee Kruesi - Twin Falls Times-News

SUN VALLEY • More partnerships are needed to manage water-rights conflicts in the Wood River Valley, state water officials argue.

But, pressured by growth affecting the valley’s limited water supply, local water users may be moving away from such collaboration.

State and local water officials discussed the dynamics of managing the valley’s water at the annual Idaho Water Users Association meeting Monday in Sun Valley.

Largely spared in the past decade’s water fights — which centered on the Magic Valley — the Wood River Valley appears the likely focus of the next round of water calls. A call is when senior water users accuse junior users — usually groundwater users — of infringing on their water rights, and ask the state to correct the situation.

Currently, state water officials say a lack of water data in the area prevents them from determining if a water right has been infringed. To help address this issue, the Idaho Department of Water Resources created a measurement district that will measure aquifer levels and monitor groundwater diversions in the Wood River Valley.

Eventually, the department expects it will transition the district into an official water district. This would allow IDWR to place a watermaster to oversee water-rights conflicts while managing both surface and groundwater rights.

“I anticipate a water district to be implemented in two or three years,” said Gary Spackman, IDWR’s interim director. “This would allow a greater opportunity for water users to make calls.”

An explosion in population growth has challenged water management in the Wood River Valley. The area’s population jumped from 5,700 in 1970 to 22,000 in 2010. This led cities and counties to rely more on groundwater use, which then affects junior water users.

If senior water users submit calls, the impact would be felt across the valley, said Jim Speck, a water attorney from Ketchum.

Calls ending in curtailment — turning off the junior users’ water that caused the imbalance — would halt irrigation in Ketchum and increase the price of city water, he said.

“Users north of the valley have varying degrees of comprehension and planning for curtailment, but one of the solutions we would like to see is to avoid litigation,” Speck said. “We’re hoping for more cooperation.”

Craig Hobdey, an attorney representing the Big Wood Canal Co., also hopes for more cooperation. He’s not holding his breath.

His client holds a senior water right and it’s often infringed upon, Hobdey said. Big Wood has attempted to submit water calls to IDWR, but Hobdey said he’s received a series of excuses from the department on why it can’t look into the call.

“My clients are not feeling very virtuous these days,” Hobdey said. “They are not getting the amount of water they feel they deserve. We’re all for conjunctive management but it has never been done correctly in Idaho. I’m not sure it ever will.”

Despite Hobdey’s criticisms, Spackman remains optimistic about the region’s future.

“We have some funds to create a water budget and a water model in the Wood River Valley. I anticipate that this will help us navigate through the process,” Spackman said. “It is imperative for us to manage this area.”

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