IDAHO FALLS — Three rulings from the Idaho Department of Water Resources on April 21 have area farmers worried they might be unable to water or irrigate this year.
The rulings attempted to resolve a yearlong legal dispute between the Surface Water Coalition in Magic Valley and Idaho Ground Water Appropriators in eastern Idaho about water distribution in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.
In a conversation with EastIdahoNews.com, IDWR Deputy Director Mathew Weaver says his department determined there would be a 75,200-acre-foot shortage to surface water users this irrigation season. Groundwater users pumping from the aquifer who hold water rights dating back to December 1953 would have their water shut off if they did not have an approved mitigation plan in place.
The curtailment will not happen until after a hearing at the IDWR’s office in Boise from June 6 to 10.
Alan Jackson, manager of the Bingham Groundwater District, says a curtailment order would not only eliminate farming in eastern Idaho, but it would also have a $137 million impact on local household incomes, devastating the local economy.
“Even if mitigation is possible this year, it will likely not be an option even in average water years in the future. It goes without saying how devastating the effects of this order would be to individual farmers, our local economies and our communities,” Jackson writes in a statement to EastIdahoNews.com.
The politics of Idaho’s water
The water dispute is something that dates back many years. 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.
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 2015, the parties reached an agreement that they would reduce annual water usage by 240,000 acre-feet. The Idaho Department of Water Resources determined that amount of reductions would replenish the water supply. The onset of the drought in 2021, combined with other factors such as low snowpack and mild winters in previous years, along with 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 Magic Vally-based Surface Water Coalition filed a lawsuit against IGWA in 2022, blaming the aquifer’s depletion on groundwater users in eastern Idaho. The lawsuit alleges groundwater users did not keep their end of the bargain to replenish the water supply and were, therefore, out of compliance with the 2015 agreement.
The goal of the April 21 rulings was to bring the parties one step closer to a resolution.
The first ruling was a methodology order, the court-reviewed and approved process by which the department determines “the magnitude of injury by groundwater pumping on senior surface water right holders.”
“It describes the process by which each year, depending on the hydrologic conditions, the climate conditions and the condition of the aquifer, what the injury is going to be,” Weaver says.
The projected 75,200-acre-foot shortage is based on a forecast of water flows at the Snake River in Heise, according to a news release from the department. Several factors the department used to determine water shortages have been updated or changed.
Reaction to the rulings
The state’s determination about the shortage doesn’t sit well with many local farmers and groundwater districts. Jackson said the methodology order came out on the same day the Snake Basin above American Falls reportedly had a 133% snowpack. Other areas, such as the Big Lost, Little Lost, Big Wood and Little Wood Basins had even higher snowpack percentages.
With snowpack percentages so high, Jackson says the claim of a 75,200-acre-foot shortage doesn’t make sense.
“If we can’t farm in a year like this, we won’t be able to farm in any year,” Jackson writes.
Jake Stander farms 2,900 acres in Bingham County. Having a conversation about shutting off water amid high snowpack levels is appalling to him, and he says it’s proof that it’s a mismanaged resource.
“It shows it’s more of a water distribution issue and a legislative issue and a law issue, than it is a water issue. We have abundant water in the Snake River Plain. It’s just a mismanagement of this resource,” Stander says.
But Weaver, with the Idaho Department of Water Resources, says a good winter and water year doesn’t mean everything is great in every part of the state. Carryover from last year’s reservoir storage is low due to two years of drought, he said, and uncertainty about how full the reservoirs will be warrants an “injury determination” for water supply conditions.
“It could be that when we get to July, if we remain wet and cool, that injury determination will come down. Conversely, if we get really hot and dry, and crops start needing that water, that injury determination might not go down and could go up,” Weaver says.
The department’s determination that it would have to curtail all junior groundwater rights dating back to Dec. 30, 1953, is an unprecedented baseline calculation.
“The oldest date we’ve had in the past was 1979, so we’ve never made a determination of a date that far back,” Weaver says.
Within the Bingham Groundwater District are 148,853 acres, Jackson says. The number of people with water rights dating back to 1953 is around 1,800, which would impact 105,576 acres, or 71% of the district.
With the adjustment of the baseline year, the department has identified 900 groundwater rights holders who may not have an approved mitigation plan. Weaver acknowledges that most people have an approved mitigation plan, and those who do are protected from the possibility of curtailment.
Conserving resources is a priority every year for Stander, regardless of state-imposed requirements, and his ability to irrigate this year is now dependent on the efforts of his groundwater district.
“We’re doing everything we can to mitigate,” Stander says. “There’s surface water available to buy … but the second that curtailment notice went out, the price of water on the open market doubled overnight. The only way I can mitigate is whatever my district can buy on my behalf or whatever I can shut off or save.”
With the storage available this year and the amount of snowpack, Jackson says the district will be able to meet the department’s terms for a mitigation plan. But he’s concerned about how it will impact the future when the water supply may not be as plentiful.
“It’s frustrating that state officials assume the mere existence of a mitigation plan provides a guarantee of safety from curtailment. The terms of the mitigation plan must still be met,” says Jackson. “In a below-average precipitation year, this may not be possible, as was the case for our district in 2021 and 2022.”
Considering the consequences
Due to the substantial changes in its methodology, the department is holding a hearing in June to give farmers a chance to contest the findings and explain whether they’re covered by an approved mitigation plan. Weaver is encouraging farmers to communicate with their groundwater district about this.
Though no official curtailment order is currently in place, Weaver says once everyone has had a chance to weigh in at the hearing, the department will reconvene and issue a subsequent curtailment order for those who do not have an approved mitigation plan.
“If junior groundwater pumpers are not participating in an approved mitigation plan, they could be subject to curtailment this year,” Weaver says in a news release.
Jackson feels the department is not fully considering the consequences of curtailment. He says the requirement for groundwater users to reduce pumping — rather than focusing on better surface water management — places an unfair burden on groundwater users.
“The policy of the Idaho Department of Water Resources is that senior users are guaranteed a full allocation of water regardless of current water supplies. Rather than absorbing a water shortage more manageably among all water users, a smaller subset of water users are required to absorb the entire shortage,” Jackson writes.
Stander agrees with the idea of better water management on both sides. He said the state’s entire approach to water management needs to change.
Bingham County is one of the biggest potato-producing counties, and it’s known for producing some of the best potatoes in the world, Stander says. Water is the lifeblood of Idaho’s economy, which means how it’s used affects everyone, not just farmers, he says, and the fact that state officials are even considering curtailment as an option is a major flaw in the system.
Solving things through litigation will never bring longterm solutions that benefit agriculture in the state, he says.
“Right now, the only ones who are winning are the attorneys,” says Stander.
If people can’t adapt and come together to solve the problem, rather than letting politicians manage everything, he says the Ag industry will eventually die.
“Idaho says it’s a big agriculture state. Prove it. Put your money where your mouth is, and let’s get some infrastructure, some real solutions going, and let’s make a difference,” Stander says. “This affects everybody. It’s not just the farmers this time. It’s the whole valley.”