Irrigators fear water will be cut off in eastern Idaho amid looming legal battle - East Idaho News

Irrigators fear water will be cut off in eastern Idaho amid looming legal battle

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IDAHO FALLS – The outcome of an irrigation lawsuit could determine whether hundreds of Idaho farmers continue to have access to the state’s water supply.

The dispute, which revolves around distribution of water in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, is between participating members of the Surface Water Coalition in Magic Valley and Idaho Ground Water Appropriators in eastern Idaho.

After years of litigation, the parties reached an agreement in 2015 that they would reduce annual water usage by 240,000 acre-feet (An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons, and it’s enough water to cover an acre of land 1 foot deep). The Idaho Department of Water Resources determined that amount of reductions would replenish the water supply.

Groundwater users also agreed they would only irrigate between April 1 and Oct. 31.

The agreement hit a few snags at the onset of the drought in 2021. Concerns about water shortages sparked more debate, and now both sides are working to renegotiate the terms of the original settlement.

“What we did in 2015 — we thought that would accomplish the goal. It’s not quite going to do that, and so there needs to be some internal adjustments,” says Lt. Governor Scott Bedke, a Magic Valley rancher who is mediating this discussion.

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Bedke says the initial agreement is not black and white, and the language makes it adaptable. He’s hoping for a mutually agreeable solution that protects the water supply.

Putting the issue in context

Water issues have a long and complicated history in Idaho and have been a political issue since the state was formed in 1890. The Great Feeder Headgate Dam and canal system near Ririe has provided most of the irrigation water for the Upper Snake River Valley since its construction in 1895. Similarly, the Milner Dam and its related canal systems near Burley have been a primary water source for Magic Valley irrigators since 1905. Both of these systems are fed by the Snake River Aquifer, which covers about 10,800 square miles of the state, according to the Idaho Department of Water Resources, and contains an estimated billion acre-feet of water.

A law establishing senior water rights, often referred to as prior appropriation, was adopted in 1881 and is part of Article XV in Idaho’s Constitution. Under the law, Magic Valley has senior water rights.

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Surface water users heavily rely on reservoirs, like the Magic Reservoir on the border of Blaine and Camas Counties, and the natural flow from rivers and streams. The amount of groundwater that’s used impacts the aquifer.

In 2022, the Surface Water Coalition filed a lawsuit against Idaho Ground Water Appropriators. Multiple factors, including the drought, mild winters with low snowpack and unusually hot temperatures early in the growing season, placed an increased demand on groundwater resources. Replenishing the water supply was a challenge in 2021 and 2022 and the increased usage left resources significantly depleted.

The lawsuit blames the depletion of the aquifer on groundwater users in eastern Idaho, alleging they did not keep their end of the bargain by replenishing the water supply, and are therefore, out of compliance with the 2015 agreement.

“Pursuant to the plan, the signatory groundwater districts and their members agreed to ‘a total groundwater diversion reduction of 240,000 acre-feet annually,'” the coalition says in court documents.

Based on the information presented in IGWA’s 2021 performance report, surface water users say the IGWA only reduced groundwater usage by 122,784 acre-feet of water that year.

Groundwater users dispute the coalition’s interpretation of the agreement, saying “each groundwater district is responsible for its ‘proportionate share.'” In a written response to the allegations, they provided clarification about the specific language in the agreement.

“It (the agreement) reads: ‘Total groundwater diversion shall be reduced by 240,000 acre-feet annually.’ It does not read: ‘IGWA will reduce groundwater diversions by 240,000 acre-feet.’ This distinction is significant,” IGWA writes. “The decline in aquifer storage was the product of all groundwater diversions from the (aquifer), not just IGWA’s diversions, and the parties expected that all groundwater users would be required to provide mitigation, not just IGWA.”

One of the concerns for eastern Idaho in this debate is that water curtailment is a possible outcome. Numerous people and agencies have been negotiating this matter for the last several years in hopes of reaching a balanced solution.

A local perspective

Stephanie Mickelsen, a freshman legislator for District 32 in Bonneville County and the co-chair of the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, tells resolving this dispute is one of her biggest priorities.

She and her husband own Mickelsen Farms, which has property throughout the Upper Valley. She says the IDWR’s calculation of the aquifer deficit is based on average water usage from 2010 to 2014, and it’s not a fair allotment.

“If you use an average for a reduction, you also need to use an average of your savings through the years,” Mickelsen says.

Prior to 2015 when water was less expensive, Mickelsen says groundwater users in eastern Idaho not only reduced usage, they also bought extra water to use for recharge. By 2020, she says there was 300,000 acre-feet of recharge available.

Every groundwater district is allotted its “proportionate share of the 240,000 acre-feet” of water every year. As the chairwoman of the Bonneville-Jefferson Groundwater District, Mickelsen says its allotment of 1.4 acre-feet is not sufficient for irrigation needs.

“We’re down to 17 inches of water (per acre) to try and grow a crop,” she says. “Seventeen inches of water is only enough to grow a barley crop. It’s not enough to grow a forage crop (like corn or alfalfa) or a potato crop.”

She’s worried that further reductions will have a detrimental impact on farmers in the area.

aquifer graphic
Courtesy Darryll Olsen

Economic impact and finding solutions

In September, the Bingham Groundwater District hired Darryll Olsen, a regional planner and resource economist with the Pacific Northwest Project, to do a study on the economic impact of groundwater irrigation curtailment. After four months of research, Olsen’s study has been compiled in a report, which was presented at a hearing in Boise last week.

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In his report, he determined there are about 150,000 acres of farmland in eastern Idaho’s seven water districts spread across five counties. If water were to be cut off from this area, it would result in a loss of $233 million regionally and $291 million statewide.

“The state is not going to be able to replace that irrigated acreage. There’s nowhere else to turn,” Olsen says.

The water supply in the Pacific Northwest is a huge draw for ag producers, Olsen says, and curtailment would also be crippling for prospective ag workers.

Jay Barlogi, manager of the Twin Falls Canal Company, agrees that water is a vital part of the state’s economy and he doesn’t want to see anyone lose access. But he says the situation is now much more dire because of the drought, and it’s going to be difficult to improve the circumstances by relying on recharge efforts.

“Some recharge activities will come back to the river in a timely fashion that will help the situation, but some of it doesn’t come back to the river for many years. This might make a long-term difference but we’ve still got to get through the short-term of it as well,” Barlogi says.

water agreement
The objectives of the 2015 agreement between the Surface Water Coalition and the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators.

He says it a complicated situation with “no easy answers,” and he was unable to offer a specific solution.

Mickelsen is also at a loss, except for saying that she thinks both sides are going to have to do some uncomfortable things and make some sacrifices to settle this in a balanced way.

She also pointed out an issue with water efficiency on the Magic Valley side where she’d like to see some improvements.

“Magic Valley’s (canal) system runs at about 37% efficiency,” Mickelsen says. “In times of drought and shortage when you’re getting a reduced amount of water (on top of that) — I can understand why (Magic Valley) farmers are mad and why they want their water, but we can’t control the delivery as junior groundwater users.”

It’s not clear when a final decision will be made. While Mickelsen and Barlogi remain hopeful both sides can work together to find a solution, Mickelsen ultimately believes it will be left to the court system to decide and curtailment may be inevitable in eastern Idaho, based on Idaho law and the wording in the state constitution.

“It’s not just farmers and irrigation dealers (who will be affected). It will trickle down into … county budgets. If you’re shutting off the water, the value of that ground goes from one kind of tax code to another tax code (and the results will be devastating),” says Mickelsen.