Will 500,000 acres of Idaho farmland lose access to water? - East Idaho News

Will 500,000 acres of Idaho farmland lose access to water?

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IDAHO FALLS – A curtailment order for eastern Idaho irrigators found to be noncompliant with a state-approved mitigation plan was scheduled to go into effect Monday.

As of 5 p.m., Idaho Department of Water Resources spokesman Steve Stuebner tells EastIdahoNews.com all the parties involved, including the director of the IDWR board, are discussing the issue in Sun Valley in hopes of reaching a deal.

“Water users are working behind the scenes today to work out a deal for this water season, but nothing has been finalized as yet,” Stuebner says in an email to EastIdahoNews.com,.

Additional information will be provided when it’s available.

The board issued the curtailment order on May 30 due to a projected shortfall of 74,100-acre-feet of water to the Twin Falls Canal Co, which has senior water rights. (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 Twin Falls Canal is part of that city’s water supply, which is fed by 10 wells out of the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer. The projected shortfall amount, according to a news release from the IDWR, is based on a number of factors, including mountain snowpack, reservoir content, irrigation need, and aquifer conditions.

The curtailment impacts about 6,400 junior groundwater rights holders who pump off the aquifer. The amount of farmland that could be affected is about 500,000 acres throughout the state, including four counties in eastern Idaho: Bingham, Bonneville, Jefferson and Clark counties.

RELATED | Idaho farmers say water curtailment order will dry up land, push them out of business

Farmers, business owners and elected officials from these counties met at the Mountain America Center’s Blue Cross of Idaho Convention Center last Thursday to discuss this issue and rally support from the state.

water meeting
The crowd at last week’s meeting in Idaho Falls. | Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com

One of the people in attendance was Clark County Commissioner MaCoy Ward. He farms 8,500 acres of land in the area. We spoke with him at the event.

If the curtailment order is enforced, Ward says water would be cut off to all of his land, preventing him from irrigating his crops this year. The result would be a devastating financial loss for him and his family.

“As farmers, we have to be as efficient as we can to keep our input costs down,” Ward explained. “We already have grain sold months in advance that we haven’t harvested yet. Dollar figures vary, but it’s a huge amount of money.”

Even if it’s not shut off, Ward says fines of at least $300 per acre would be imposed. He would also face the possibility of a lawsuit.

Farmers aren’t the only ones who would feel the loss.

Truckers, who ship the products harvested by local farmers, would be forced to freight in those products elsewhere, resulting in price increases for customers. Tractors and other equipment many farmers lease from dealers would be returned, negatively impacting the dealership and its employees.

Valley Agronomics provides fertilizer and consulting services for growers throughout the area. Rob Orr works for the Rexburg branch. After Thursday’s meeting, he told us the curtailment would mean a loss of $10 million in revenue for the company.

“We hire extra drivers to get liquid fertilizer, chemical to (farmers),” Orr said. “They’ve already paid for their fertilizer. They’ve got contracts with wheat companies. If they don’t provide wheat, they have to go out and buy wheat to fill that contract. It’s mind-boggling how (much this will negatively affect our economy).”

Without a hay crop, farmers can’t sustain cattle, which in turn impacts the quality of beef and beef prices.

The shortage of local grain, meat and other commodities would force retailers to ship those items from other states, resulting in higher prices amid rising inflation.

“It saddens me to see how little people realize the impact this will have on Idaho,” Ward says. “At the county level, the tax shifts could drive residents out due to high property taxes. Schools in smaller, rural areas might close.”

A closer look at the issue

The Idaho Department of Water Resources said there are two plans water users can participate in to avoid curtailment when there is a water shortage. One is a 2009 plan submitted by the Idaho Groundwater Appropriators. The other is a settlement agreement from 2016.

The mitigation plan requires groundwater users to restore aquifer levels at the end of the growing season so levels of water in the aquifer don’t continue to decline.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little pushed that point home in a statement this week. He said although it may be a good water year, the aquifer’s supply of water continues to dwindle.

“Water from the aquifer feeds the Snake River. Like we do as Idahoans, we are coming together and building some momentum around efforts to get ground water users in compliance with an approved mitigation plan,” Little says. “If we continue the status quo with water use on the Eastern Snake Plain, we are setting our children and grandchildren up for failure.”

RELATED | How a state order will impact groundwater irrigators in eastern Idaho — and everyone else

Deputy IDWR Director Brian Patton says in a news release groundwater districts facing curtailment chose not to comply with either plan “because of ongoing disagreement with the department and amongst themselves” and that “many junior groundwater users will be curtailed who might otherwise have been spared.”

“It is surprising to us that six groundwater districts would choose not to live by the terms of either of their approved mitigation plans and subject their members to curtailment,” Patton says.

But Ward disagrees with Patton’s claim, saying the mitigation plan isn’t working.

“Eastern Idaho farmers are giving up 12,000-acre-feet this year, double that next year, and so on. This trend is unsustainable,” he says.

Ward points out numerous conservation methods that have been implemented for groundwater users, including spending $40,000 for new meters to monitor water usage, which he checks monthly.

He conserves water in every way he can, including shutting it off when it’s raining.

“The water they allowed us to have last year, we used less than that, and it still seems like we’re being punished for the shortfall,” says MaCoy.

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

Addressing concerns

During last week’s meeting in Idaho Falls, Paul Arrington with the Idaho Water Users Association, which represents irrigation water users, municipalities and other organizations interested in wise water use across the state, gave a two-hour presentation about Idaho’s water supply and answered questions from those in attendance.

While Ward and others acknowledged Idaho’s Prior Appropriation doctrine, which means the older senior water rights have priority over the newer junior water rights, they say groundwater users shouldn’t bear sole responsibility for the shortfall and there needs to be a workable solution for everyone.

Arrington was sympathetic and agreed curtailment isn’t the best solution. He explained the state does everything it can to avoid curtailment and implement restrictions, but said it ultimately has to take “a strict and narrow look” at the law and make decisions based on that.

“We may have some curtailment this year. In the 10 or 20 years this dispute has been going on, this would be the first time that we’ve had really broad scale curtailment,” Arrington said.

RELATED | Idaho Department of Water Resources won’t shut off groundwater users – at this point

A curtailment order issued last year never went into effect due to a new methodology order that changed the methods used in calculations. After applying those new methods to hydrologic and climate conditions, the department found there wasn’t a shortfall and there would be no need for curtailment.

ESPA storage
A slide from Harrington’s presentation showing aquifer storage numbers over the years. | Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com

This year, the state’s report did show a shortfall of 74,100-acre-feet.

At last week’s meeting, Arrington said changes in the methodology order means “there will be an injury determination more often.”

“We’ve had 15 years of litigation on this. We’ve had six decisions from the Supreme Court on this … and in every single one of those decisions, the court has told (IDWR) ‘You have to provide water to the senior water user in the time of need,'” Arrington said.

But whether local curtailment happens this year is yet to be seen.

“We are still holding strong and farming as we have been last year, until we get better direction,” Ward said, as of 3 p.m. Monday.