RICHFIELD — Paul Thomas braced himself against the wind Tuesday while standing at a concrete check on the Dietrich Canal, maneuvering a small pontoon “boat” back and forth across the water. Riding on the boat was a sonar device used to measure the flow of water being diverted from the canal south of Richfield into a new recharge site on the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.
“Eighteen cfs,” shouted Thomas, a research hydrogeologist with the Idaho Water Resources Research Institute, an institute within the University of Idaho.
The IWRRI is just one player in what Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, calls the state’s biggest success — a monumental water agreement between junior and senior water users that prevented water calls and curtailment that could have crippled Idaho’s economy.
A battle over water rights had brewed for nearly a decade between surface water users — irrigators who held senior water rights — and junior groundwater users, including farmers who irrigated with well water and municipalities that pumped drinking water from the ESPA.
Groundwater pumping over the past seven decades had depleted the aquifer that sustains life in the southern Idaho desert to its lowest levels since 1912. In recent years, 200,000 acre-feet more water per year was leaving the ESPA than was going in. An acre-foot is enough to an acre (a little smaller than a football field) with 12 inches of water.
Bedke brought together the Surface Water Coalition and the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators in 2015 to settle the longstanding dispute.
“I told them to bring a lunch and a flashlight because we were going to be working long into the night,” he said Thursday.
The two sides agreed to solve the dispute through mediation and legislation rather than to fight it out through litigation and curtailment, Bedke said. Groundwater users agreed to reduce water use by 13 percent and the legislature agreed to make a significant investment in recharge infrastructure and pay canal companies for wheeling water to recharge sites.
Over the past two winters, efforts to send water from the Snake River into the aquifer have been wildly successful, water managers said.
This year’s recharge efforts had, by February, surpassed the Idaho Water Resource Board’s annual goal of 250,000 acre-feet. By the time the recharge season ends and the irrigation season begins, this year’s total recharge could reach 500,000 acre-feet, said Wesley Hipke, recharge project manager with the Idaho Department of Water Resources.
But Hipke is quick to point out that diligence is needed to continue the success of the program. The IWRB’s goal of returning the aquifer to early 1990s’ levels won’t be accomplished in a couple years, he said Tuesday on a tour of the recharge site south of Richfield.
“If it weren’t for the cooperation of the canal companies and irrigation districts, this wouldn’t be working,” retired Idaho Rep. John Albert ‘Bert’ Stevenson said during Tuesday’s recharge tour. Stevenson was influential in pointing the legislature toward aquifer recharge before he retired in 2012.
“As (former) chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, (Stevenson) knows his way around these issues,” Bedke said. “We couldn’t be more pleased — (the recharge effort) is working better than we ever thought it would.
“The agreement is still in place and groundwater users are taking less water out of the ground, from St. Anthony to Hagerman, to put water back into the aquifer,” he said.
“It’s the new normal,” said Vince Alberdi, water board member and former general manager of the Twin Falls Canal Co.
Bedke said the settlement agreement and the state’s recharge program could be a model for other western states with depleted aquifers.
As of April 12, the IWRB has recharged 453,988 acre-feet, mostly through the Milepost 31 recharge site on the Milner-Gooding Canal, a 300-acre basin north of Eden.
“It’s been a team effort,” Bedke said. “We were able to stop the drop of the aquifer and are ahead of schedule in recharge. That’s very, very good news to the Magic Valley.”
“The agreement is still in place and groundwater users are taking less water out of the ground, from St. Anthony to Hagerman, to put water back into the aquifer.” Scott Bedke, Idaho Speaker of the House