Brian Olmstead has seen it all during his 21 years with the Twin Falls Canal Co. — droughts, a 100-year-storm, devastating winter floods and, yes, a few “normal” years too.
Olmstead, 68, will now put all that behind him as he leaves the canal company and takes his water expertise to a new level at the Idaho Water Resource Board.
Olmstead replaces his old boss, Vince Alberdi, who recently retired after 12 years on the water board. Alberdi ran the Twin Falls canal system from 1992 to 2008.
“I hired Brian in 2000. I needed somebody at that time who could handle water quality issues,” Alberdi told the Times-News on Thursday. “Brian didn’t disappoint.”
Olmstead became general manager when Alberdi moved on to the state water board in 2008.
The backbone of Idaho’s economy
The Twin Falls Canal Co. is the largest irrigation company in the state and the most successful of the 1894 Carey Act projects.
The canal system, which brought the desert to life in 1905, diverts surface water from the Snake River at Milner Dam into the Main Canal at a rate of 3,500 cubic feet per second. Irrigation water is delivered to some 4,000 water users through 110 miles of canals and 1,000 miles of laterals, and past 3,000 service gates.
Brian Olmstead retires
“There’s no question,” Alberdi said, “when you have a canal system that covers 200,000 acres, it’s a big job.”
While the Snake River is the lifeblood of the state, the Magic Valley is the backbone of Idaho’s economy, Olmstead said.
That’s why, when water curtailment orders due to a shrunken Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer threatened the stability of agriculture in the state, House Speaker Scott Bedke intervened and bartered a deal between surface-water users who irrigate with water from streams or rivers and groundwater users who irrigate with water pumped from wells.
Water in the Lake Erie-sized aquifer had been over-allocated and the legislators agreed the state was needed to help bring it into balance, Olmstead said.
Surface-water users, known collectively as the Surface Water Coalition, generally hold older water rights than do groundwater pumpers. Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman is responsible for filling senior water claims before junior claims, pursuant to Idaho’s “first in time, first in right” water rule.
The amount of precipitation the region receives has changed little over the past 60 years, Olmstead told the Times-News in 2015. But the reason for water battles in this heavily irrigated desert is simple.
“We are pumping more and recharging less,” Olmstead said at the time. The aquifer had reached its lowest levels since 1912.
The state legislature allocated funds to build recharge infrastructure to divert excess surface water through Idaho’s canal systems during the winter off-season into the aquifer.
In addition, groundwater users with junior water rights agreed to surrender a staggering 13% of their water, among other stipulations. The plan, as proposed, would leave an additional 240,000 acre-feet in the aquifer each year.
During the first four years of the monumental agreement, water was plentiful and recharge was a resounding success. But during the past two years, drought conditions have slowed recharge efforts.
“Now we are going to be testing (the agreement) with the drought,” Alberdi said. “I have all the confidence in the world that those in the settlement will continue to work toward its success.”
More than agriculture
What many may not realize about the canal company is that the system doesn’t only serve farmers. Shareholders also include the College of Southern Idaho, school districts and golf courses. The city of Twin Falls is the largest shareholder, Olmstead said.
As a manager, Olmstead had to balance his work between delivering irrigation water to its 4,000 users, continuing to improve water quality and conservation efforts, building public awareness and promoting water safety.
And then there’s the work that goes into operating and maintaining the system, which contains several inline hydropower plants overseen by plant engineer Louis Zamora.
More recent projects include the 2013 expansion of Kinyon Pond, a reservoir south of Castleford. The pond is a natural depression at the end of the High Line Canal at Deep Creek that covers 35 acres and holds more than 200 acre-feet.
In 2019, the canal company took on the first part of a project to line the “leakiest” stretch of the High Line Canal with durable black plastic. The $450,000 joint project with the Bureau of Reclamation lined a three-quarter-mile section of a three-mile stretch of canal near Hansen. Olmstead said the liner saves roughly 8,000 acre-feet per year and pays for itself every season.
The company plans to line more of the three-mile stretch in the future, Olmstead said.
Looking to the future
As urban growth in Twin falls County began to encroach upon farmland, the necessity to raise awareness of the canal system and the Perrine Coulee — which winds through the county seat — increased.
“We’ve tried like heck to bring to the forefront the dangers of the canal,” Alberdi said. “It’s a huge responsibility to convey that message to the community.”
That’s where Olmstead’s “tremendous people skills” came in, he said.
“It’s very important for residents to understand how the area developed,” Alberdi continued. “Encroachments have happened, and those encroachments were allowed by — for lack of a better word — the management style in the teens and ’20s when development was allowed to encroach on the canal system.”
“I don’t think I’ve been bored in 21 years,” Olmstead said Friday at an open house for his retirement.
“Brian doesn’t have a Harvard degree,” Phil Blick, president of the canal company board, said. “But damn he was good.”
Senior reporter Mychel Matthews covered agriculture from 1991 to 1997 for the Times-News and the Magic Valley Ag Weekly, back when Vince Alber…