The stark reality finally sunk in.
The Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer has reached its lowest point since surface-water irrigators began inadvertently filling the aquifer in the early 20th century.
But surface- and groundwater users, after a long and bitter battle over water rights, last year agreed on a way to stop the declining aquifer levels and vowed to reverse the trend.
The aquifer’s decline has gone far beyond being a water-rights issue.
The aquifer’s very existence, the state’s agriculture and its economic health are at risk. Without the 2015 deal, Idaho would have to enforce a 10-year-old water delivery call — a demand by a coalition of surface water users against groundwater users with newer, junior rights. To make the deal work, the 2016 Legislature will have to fund millions of dollars in aquifer sustainability projects.
“Here’s what’s at stake,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who bartered the deal. “If there were no agreement, then these water calls would come into effect. Junior water rights would have to be curtailed and hundreds of thousands of acres would go idle.”
Either way, it’s going to hurt. But the water deal lessens the huge risks to southern Idaho farmers, their bankers and all the economic sectors that depend on them.
Over the years, the Idaho Department of Water Resources has over-allocated groundwater, said Brian Olmstead, general manager of Twin Falls Canal Co., which owns some of the region’s oldest water rights.
After six consecutive years of drought in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Water Resources placed a moratorium on issuing new permits for consumptive water use in the Snake River Basin upstream from Weiser. Then-Director Keith Higginson issued the moratorium in April 1993.
Since then, the department has dealt with water call after water call, continuing “to kick the can down the road” without working on a solution to the problem, Olmstead told the Times-News.
“Groundwater users are mining the aquifer,” he told shareholders at January’s annual meeting. “More water is being drawn from the aquifer than is going in.”
Olmstead’s words came as no surprise to anyone in the room. The canal company and other members of the Surface Water Coalition made a water delivery call against Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer groundwater users back in 2005.
Last year, the ongoing water call made headlines when Bedke sat both sides down to talk about finding a way to avert curtailment, once and for all. Even Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter got involved, suggesting the two sides meet without lawyers.
Water Resources accepted agreements between major players in the water call last fall, and now state legislators are addressing aquifer recharge to replenish the resource.
The Settlement Agreement
The major agreement, between the Surface Water Coalition and the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, outlined these objectives:
- Mitigate for material injury to senior surface water rights.
- Provide “safe harbor” from curtailment to the groundwater users who agree to the terms of the agreement.
- Minimize economic impact on individual water users and the state economy arising from water supply shortages.
- Increase reliability and enforcement of water use, measurement and reporting across the Eastern Snake Plain.
- Increase compliance with all elements and conditions of all water rights and increase enforcement when there is not compliance.
- Develop an adaptive groundwater management plan to stabilize and enhance Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer levels.
Someone’s about to pay a huge price. But it’s an arrangement that saves anyone from losing it all.
Idaho Ground Water Appropriators members, who represent the largest portion of the affected groundwater users, agreed to reduce groundwater consumption by 240,000 acre-feet annually. This amounts to about a 13 percent reduction and represents the amount of water needed to stop the aquifer’s decline. The current goal is to stabilize groundwater levels — represented by the water levels in 19 chosen wells — by maintaining 2015 levels through 2020.
Groundwater users also agreed to limit their irrigation season, starting no earlier than April 1 and ending no later than Oct. 31 each year.
That season shortening isn’t enough to reduce use by 13 percent. Farmers using groundwater will have to idle some acreage, choose crops that use less water and increase irrigation efficiency. Under the state’s oversight, groundwater users will begin monitoring wells to make sure everyone does their part to meet the reduction.
The long-term goal is to increase the aquifer to 1990-2001 levels by 2026, reaching a halfway point by 2023, using a state-sponsored, managed recharge program of 250,000 acre-feet per year.
Making It Law
While the settlement agreement between surface water users and groundwater users is legal and binding and does not need to become law, the 2016 Legislature will need to pass laws that establish the means for the agreement to work, such as money for recharge infrastructure and aquifer modeling.
Recharge simply means letting water soak into the ground and head for the aquifer — or injecting it through a well.
Obviously, there is not enough water in the system to recharge during the irrigation season. Recharge must happen during the winter — and that means diversion sites must be modified to handle ice. Pumps and bubblers must be installed to keep water from freezing. Recharge water must be diverted around hydroelectricity plants and other structures.
Until now, only limited recharge has happened. The state had an annual goal of recharging 100,000 acre-feet; however, Water Resources has averaged 75,000 acre-feet per year since 2009.
Wesley Hipke, the department’s recharge project manager, said the state used to pay a flat rate of $3 per acre-foot to defray recharge costs to irrigation companies in the lower valley of the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer. The program used a state-held recharge right, which remains a priority throughout winter to maintain a base flow of 500 cubic feet per second below Milner Dam.
“The payment is for wheeling the water since the water being recharged is part of the IWRB’s (Idaho Water Resource Board’s) natural flow water right,” Hipke said.
In 2014, Water Resources and three irrigation water providers conducted the state’s first extensive winter aquifer recharge effort. Twin Falls Canal Co., American Falls Reservoir District No. 2 and Southwest Irrigation District were paid to recharge through a new, tiered payment program. The tiered structure ranges from $3 per acre-foot for up to 25 days of recharge to $14 per acre-foot for more than 120 days of recharge.
A recharge project of the magnitude needed now requires the state’s support, and Idaho’s governor, House speaker and key legislators are giving the issue high priority this session.
What Happens to Existing Water Rights?
Farming has always been risky. Each year, growers on Idaho’s Eastern Snake Plain try to outguess the market, outguess the competition and outguess the weather.
Some hedge their bets by purchasing farm ground with the oldest water rights.
“We paid a premium for our land,” said Ken Kostka, who holds senior surface water rights, and senior groundwater rights that date back to 1948.
Idaho law dictates senior water-right holders get every drop of their allotment before those with junior rights get any. This will not change with the settlement agreement.
Most Surface Water Coalition members hold senior water rights from the early 1900s. Most groundwater users, represented by Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, hold junior water rights procured decades later.
A&B Irrigation District is a member of the Surface Water Coalition, but its members hold both surface water rights and senior groundwater rights. The irrigation district, which covers farm ground in Jerome and Minidoka counties, has filed its own settlement agreement with Water Resources due to its unique position.
The hardest pill to swallow for senior water-right holders in the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, Kostka said, is that the group’s agreement with the Surface Water Coalition “makes all IGWA’s groundwater users equal” no matter what priority date is associated with their water rights.
“It will lower the value of their land,” he said.
Kostka knows what IGWA members will have to go through. He went through a similar situation during a drought in 2007.
“There wasn’t enough water to irrigate everything,” he said. “I couldn’t make my payments if I had to idle 13 percent of my farm.”
Although he farms more acres with groundwater than with surface water, he won’t have to give up any of his water because of A&B’s ongoing recharge efforts.
Neither will members of Southwest Irrigation District, said Randy Brown, district manager.
Southwest had a previous agreement with the Surface Water Coalition, and the district is working to renew it.
“We’re negotiating it now,” Brown said.
The Other 3 Percent
Ag producers are not the only water users, but they are, by far, the largest.
Municipal and commercial water use makes up only 3 percent of the region’s groundwater pumping, said Rob Williams, lead attorney for the Coalition of Cities, 14 Magic Valley towns that are also negotiating their own deal with the Surface Water Coalition.
“Municipal rights are unique, with nuances that need to be treated differently than others,” Williams said. “The cities don’t do a great percent of the pumping, but they need a stable and predictable water supply.”
He’s working to make sure their interest is protected.
“We’re making progress,” he said. “It’s important for the whole. Cities and agriculture are interrelated. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Factories using the municipal water supply process agricultural products grown on farmland outside town. If one suffers, the other does too.
Though they aren’t included in the 10-year-old water call, other cities on the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer from Bliss to Ashton have joined in the discussion, Williams said. That’s heartening to him; it shows they recognize the magnitude of Idaho’s water crisis.
“Cities have to contribute to the overall solution,” he said. “It’s going to take a combination of measures to put more water back in the aquifer.”
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