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Retired but not slowing down: Brian Olmstead retires from Twin Falls Canal Co. and joins the Idaho Water Resource Board
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Retired but not slowing down: Brian Olmstead retires from Twin Falls Canal Co. and joins the Idaho Water Resource Board

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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.

Coulee

Brian Olmstead, general manager of the Twin Falls Canal Company, gives a Sept. 30, 2016, tour of the Perrine Coulee in Twin Falls.

Buhl flooding

Brian Olmstead, general manager of the Twin Falls Canal Company, speaks with employees Feb. 9, 2017, about plans to remove ice from the canal before it can build up and block the flow of water near Buhl.

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.

Brian Olmstead

Brian Olmstead, general manager of the Twin Falls Canal Co., consults with personnel manager Kim Rankin on May 26 in Twin Falls. On the wall is a map of the 202,000-acre area serviced by the canal company.

Brian Olmstead

Twin Falls Canal Co. staff members pose May 26 for a group portrait. Seen from left are Water Master Troy Jones, new general manager Jay Barlogi, outgoing general manager Brian Olmstead and Environmental Engineer Jason Brown, who is taking on Barlogi's old duties as operations manager.

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
Brian Olmstead

Twin Falls Canal Co. crews reinforce a bank May 26 at 'Stafford Bend' on the High Line Canal where a 'seep' was discovered south of Twin Falls. Canal company ditch riders are constantly on the lookout for unusual moisture showing in and around the banks that would indicate damage from burrowing rodents, earthquakes or other ground disturbances.

“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 Issues

Brian Olmstead, Twin Falls Canal Co. general manager, explains Dec. 04, 2015, how surface water irrigation, starting in 1905, built underground water levels as excess moisture seeped into the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer over time. By 2015, groundwater users, including domestic-well owners and irrigators, had drained the aquifer to 1912 levels.

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.

Wilson Canyon Recharge site

Twin Falls Canal Co. general manager Brian Olmstead takes a picture Dec. 11, 2019, during a tour of the new Wilson Canyon recharge site on the North Side Canal near Hazelton. Idaho's recharge efforts to replenish the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer with excess surface water during winter months is a priority of surface-water users and groundwater users alike. 

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.

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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.

Twin Falls Canal Co.

Brian Olmstead, Twin Falls Canal Co. general manager, points out the Milner-Gooding Canal on April 5, 2018, at its Milepost 31 recharge site, a 300-acre basin north of Eden. Milepost 31 is the workhorse of Idaho's aquifer-recharge program, which Olmstead was instrumental in expanding. 

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.

Lining the canals

Crews work Nov. 19, 2019, on a $450,000 project to line a three-quarter-mile section of the High Line Canal near Hansen.

Lining the canals

Twin Falls Canal Co. general manager, Brian Olmstead, gives a Nov. 19, 2019, tour of a $450,000 project to line the High Line Canal near Hansen to prevent leakage. The $450,000 project will save the canal company 50 acre-feet per day. 'We are just scratching the surface of the use of technology,' Olmstead says.  

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.

Brian Olmstead

Brian Olmstead, general manager of the Twin Falls Canal Company, gives a Sept. 30, 2016, water-quality tour of the Perrine Coulee's course through Twin Falls. Olmstead gives numerous talks and tours each year to educate the community about developing around the canal system's coulees and laterals.

“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.”

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