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Aquifer Recharge Basin

The Milner-Gooding Canal 'Milepost 31' aquifer recharge site is seen stretching into the background in this photo taken May 1 north of Eden.

HAZELTON — The Idaho Water Resource Board has pegged the projects earmarked by lawmakers this spring for aquifer recharge, and some $7 million will go toward efforts in the Magic Valley to boost the declining Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, which has reached alarmingly low levels.

The water board, which met last week in Sandpoint, approved $4.5 million to reroute winter recharge water around power plants on the North Side Canal and $1.8 million to construct a new check dam and headgates at the Milepost 31 recharge site on the Milner-Gooding Canal. The board also approved $600,000 for recharge enhancements to a new pipeline in the Southwest Idaho Irrigation District.

North Side's recharge efforts have so far been limited to fall and spring when there's no danger of ice forming around four hydropower units in the canal between Milner Dam and Wilson Lake. The money will be used to divert water around the units during winter months as it makes its way to Wilson Lake, where it will seep into the aquifer. Also, deicing mechanisms will be installed at the Wilson Lake dam.

"During the fall of 2015 and the spring of 2016 North Side Canal Co. recharged 9,400 acre-feet," said Alan Hansten, canal company manager. "With the recharge improvements and the ability to manage water through the winter months, we hope to recharge approximately 45,000 acre-feet."

Inflatable rubber dams, which have an estimated 20-year lifespan, will be installed ahead of the power plants to divert the water into previously abandoned canals, Hansten said. The dams will be deflated in the spring to allow water to flow through the power plants.

Other recharge sites have obstacles that need addressed, said Wesley Hipke, recharge project manager for the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

"The focus this year is on the ESPA," Hipke said, "but we will also be doing things in the Treasure Valley and up north near Lewiston and Priest Lake." 

The water board, an independent board appointed by the governor, works in conjunction with the Idaho Department of Water Resources. 

"We make policy," board member Vince Alberdi said Monday, "and they enforce the regulations and statutes."

The state's goal is to recharge the ESPA by 250,000 acre-feet per year to restore aquifer levels, which have been dropping since the 1950s. In the winter of 2015-2016, the board delivered 66,487 acre-feet of water into the ESPA through four projects below American Falls Dam at a cost of $452,161.

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The Legislature upped the ante this year in response to a monumental agreement ironed out last year between surface-water and groundwater users to restore the health of the aquifer by approving a multi-million-dollar boost in recharge funding over the next few years to achieve this goal, as well as to pay for aquifer study, stabilization and recharge in other parts of the state.

The total approved budget is for $28.9 million over three years. The money comes from a mix of general and dedicated funds and federal grants.

"Next year we will have some big-dollar projects going on," Hipke said. "As we move forward there still is a lot of work to do.

"In order to reach our goal..., the board will need to continue to build more recharge infrastructure in the Upper Valley and Mid-Snake regions."

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