Water: Not enough to go around Growing demand on diminishing supply gets state’s attention, water users, too

For the Capital Press

SHOSHONE, Idaho - Levels of the Thousand Springs reach of the East Snake River Plains Aquifer are steadily dropping.

Farmers on this north side of the Snake River Canyon between Milner Dam near Burley and King Hill have been installing water-efficient sprinkler systems. These replace irrigation of this sandy soil, which used to recharge the aquifer.

Ongoing installation of new wells – especially wells to supply water for pivot systems – is putting a significant draw on the aquifer.

And then there’s the continuing trend of drought conditions with well-below normal precipitation for the last three years, including the 2002 water year that ended in October.

To deal with the growing demand on a diminishing groundwater supply, officials are taking steps to give better protection to senior water rights.

At a two-hour hearing in Shoshone last week, Karl Dreher of Boise, director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources, said his proposed plan to expand Water District 130 will enable the government to curtail use of junior-priority wells that injure senior-priority rights of surface water.

“Holders of ground water rights that have previously not been subject to administration will now be subject to limited administration if we determine their use causes injury to senior-priority rights from the Thousand Springs reach,” Dreher said.

About 25 of the 300 notified groundwater users in the expansion area attended the legally required hearing. Dreher said he intends to expand Water District 130, called the Thousand Springs reach. The expansion would take in an additional area of 1,400 square miles north of Shoshone and Gooding.

Most ground water rights for wells on the East Snake River Plain Aquifer are junior-priority, Dreher said, and most surface water rights that depend on spring flows from aquifer overflow are senior-priority, established as far back as 1860.

Until now, if senior-priority users believed a new well or a series of new wells were depleting their surface water levels, they had to prove it, which often was a lengthy and difficult legal process.

If the expansion of the water district becomes law, the IDWR – not the courts – will determine if there is injury and will have the authority to order curtailment of ground water use if deemed necessary. Monitoring of water use can be done by satellite cameras with precision accuracy, Dreher said, and curtailment of use would be ordered in the fall to stop water pumping in the following year.

“We want to administer water rights appropriately,” Dreher said. “It’s really come about because of drought conditions. ... Unfortunately, I do (think drought conditions will continue). That’s why it’s necessary to take this action.”

Dreher said the water district expansion would take in the Wood River drainage area, which the IDWR has determined is the northern boundary of the Thousand Springs reach of the aquifer.

John Faulkner of Gooding, representing himself and Sawtooth Sheep Company, questioned an IDWR aquifer model, which indicates that the Wood River recharges the Thousand Springs reach.

Wells are deep in the Gooding area, he said, but are progressively more shallow to the south. Then, around Wendell – 10 miles south of Gooding – wells become deeper again, which indicates the Wood River drainage that Dreher proposes to add to District 130 may instead be a perched aquifer that has a completely separate drainage.

If so, Faulkner said, it would be unfair to curtail use of wells north of Gooding when springs south and west of Wendell are low.

“I can’t see where Wood River has any effect on Thousand Springs,” he said.

Geological data of IDWR appears to be uncertain, Faulkner said, because the department still is drilling new wells to monitor water levels.

Dreher said the aquifer model is based on reports from several government agencies whose geologists have done extensive investigation and have monitored some 800 wells.

“(The model) is not as certain as it could be,” Dreher said, “but it doesn’t mean it’s no good.”

“It doesn’t mean it’s any good, either,” Faulkner replied.

Jeff Martin of Jerome, representing the Northside Ground Water District, said he and his group support the proposed water district expansion. Administration of the water supply is a complicated matter, both technically and legally, he said.

Mike Faulkner of Gooding, representing Faulkner Land & Livestock, said he supports the district expansion, even thought the issue is complicated.

“It’s going to be inevitable, one way or the other,” he said. “There are still a lot of unresolved issues. I don’t think the facts are there.”

George Lemmon of Hagerman, representing Big Springs Water Users and Water District 36A, said he and his group are not in favor of Dreher’s plan to expand the district and possibly curtail use of well water.

As it is, Lemmon said, local water users are able to elect their own water master.

If the district is expanded, they would lose that right, he said, adding, “We would lose our identity.”

Big Springs users are both surface and well water users, Lemmon said, and curtailment of well water use could cause conflicts. Instead, he proposed, the aquifer could be recharged by letting canal water run year-round. Since the canals flow through sand and fractured basalt, the Thousand Springs reach of the aquifer would refill, he explained.

“If we don’t let the water run down the river,” Lemmon said, “we’ll accumulate water in this area so there’s water for everybody.”

Before so many sprinkler systems replaced irrigation, he said, there was plenty of surface water.

Dreher said the area’s rainfall and snow packs have been well below normal for three years.

“I wish I could tell you the drought looks like it’s ending,” Dreher said. “It isn’t. Predictions of snowfall have not materialized. ... There’s only a 20 percent chance the state will enjoy an above-average precipitation.”

As new wells continue to go in and ground water levels continue to drop, he said, aquifer overflow that emerges as spring water is expected to drop significantly.

“We can no longer ignore that issue,” Dreher said. “Even without drought, we’ve got to get a hold on it.”

Dreher said he wants to come up with a flexible plan that will protect senior rights and yet will work with junior rights to keep their water flowing, too.

This plan, Dreher explained, could include improved water conservation by senior holders, formation of sub-districts for better water sharing, and more communication for improving user relationships.

Dreher said he will accept written comment through Dec. 31. On Jan. 6, he will make a final order on whether or not to expand the district.

The order then will be voted on at the Water Resources’ annual meeting in February.


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