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Farms, businesses, cities face water cutoff
Depletion of Snake River aquifer threatens livelihoods in S. Idaho
March 14, 2004
JEROME — A dispute between farms, businesses and cities that pump their water from wells and trout farmers who get water from springs threatens the foundation of Idaho water law and with it the economy of the state.
Idaho Water Resources Director Karl Dreher has told 750 farmers, businesses and cities he will order them to shut down 1,300 wells April 1 if they cannot produce 26,500 acre-feet of water to make up for lost spring water. Up to 111,000 acres of Idaho farms would be dried up, more than 125,000 dairy cattle would lose their water, several food processing plants would be closed, and 14 small cities would be shorted water if he follows through.
The eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer, an underground reservoir as large as Lake Erie, is dropping at a rate greater than anyone predicted, ultimately threatening the water supply for more than a million acres of farms, cities and industries. Even homes could lose water as wells go dry.
Dreher´s Feb. 25 order comes after Rangen Inc., which operates a trout farm near Hagerman, made a call for water to which it´s entitled. Several other trout producers, farms and other businesses are preparing to demand the water they have a legal right to, even if others are forced to shut down their pumps.
Dairy farmers and potato growers vow to fight the order to save their cows, crops and businesses. And even if the well owners can purchase the surface water Dreher has ordered, trout producers say it won´t be enough.
House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, warned the crisis could quickly cascade out of control if he and other state leaders don´t act soon.
“Once the call is enforced, there will be others, and they will run all the way up the Snake River,” Newcomb said Friday.
He and other lawmakers have been meeting with attorneys for all of the players, seeking an agreement that would resolve the issue for a year while developing a long- term plan to reverse the decline in the aquifer. They may push legislation in this final week of the session to provide “money, water, personnel — whatever it takes,” Newcomb said, to convince the spring water users the state is serious about solving the problem.
Already he and Senate leaders have organized an interim legislative committee to develop a long-term program.
Talks are ongoing. But Jeff Martin, manager of the North Snake Ground Water District, a taxing entity created by pumpers to manage groundwater in the area, stops short of assuring farmers the shutoff won´t happen. He pointed to an Oregon dispute where a court order resulted in the government shutting off water to farmers for the 2001 season, causing widespread losses.
“I think the guys in Klamath Valley thought it wouldn´t happen to them either,” Martin said.
Rangen can demand the water because under Idaho law the oldest user of water has the superior right to it. This “prior appropriation doctrine” is the foundation of all Western water laws, including Idaho´s.
That doctrine developed from people diverting water out of rivers and streams. When drought came or the water level dropped during the season, the senior right-holders could continue to divert water while junior right-holders were forced to stop.
But the issue became more complex as the state began managing groundwater along with surface water. Hydrologists have known for decades that the groundwater and surface water systems are connected. But it wasn´t until the 1990s that Idaho began to manage surface and groundwater together as one conjunctive system.
Under the state´s system, when a surface water user´s senior right is affected by too much groundwater pumping in an area, the pumpers must offset their impact by leasing or purchasing surface water to replace the water lost to the senior right-holder.
But a third group of water users gets its water directly from springs that come out of the wall of the Snake River Canyon from American Falls all the way to Thousand Springs near Hagerman. Water can´t be delivered economically to many of these users, including Rangen and other trout producers, any other way than from their springs.
In 1915, the flows from the springs were actually lower than they are today. But as irrigation spread across southern Idaho, water seeped into the aquifer from canals and fields flooded to deliver the water to the crops. Then, beginning in the 1950s, thousands of farmers opened up new fields by pumping water from the aquifer. The level of the aquifer steadily dropped, especially as flood irrigation was replaced by sprinklers, which spread less surface water on the land.
More rights than water
Yet the state continued to issue new licenses for wells, believing the aquifer to be infinite. Now people on both sides agree there are more water rights than there is water. Shutting down the junior rights could dry up more than a million acres of farms, close dozens of dairies and food processing plants, and devastate the economy of southern Idaho.
Managing the problem is complex. Conservation of groundwater will help, but some farmers may be forced to shut off their pumps. Many could convert to surface water. State and local officials also hope they can begin a program of artificially recharging the aquifer during high water years.
However, these plans all face obstacles and cost money.
Several of the trout producers consider Dreher´s order inadequate and a direct challenge to their water rights. Under prior appropriation, the law is clear, they say: They have water rights that must be honored.
“Rangen´s purpose has never been to put anyone out of business,” said J. Dee May, an attorney for the company. “Rangen´s flows have been declining for many years, and it has finally gotten to the point it´s difficult to operate.”
On the other side are farmers like John Beukers, who has 6,000 dairy cows to feed and water daily. Fifty-five employees and their families depend on his operation.
He and other dairy farmers could neither economically truck in water nor move their herds out. If the order is enforced, the cattle would die within days.
“I don´t think I can do this,” Beukers said. “This is not a water rights issue; it´s an animal rights issue.”
Last year, fish farmers in the Hagerman Valley were forced to hastily take trout to market when water ran low.
May is hopeful that negotiations will result in a short-term plan to help Rangen and others. But for the past decade, a series of short- term fixes have eroded the confidence of many on all sides in the state´s ability to take the bold action necessary.
“This is bigger than fish farmers versus pumpers,” said Larry Cope, president of Clear Springs Foods near Buhl, the nation´s largest producer of trout.
Clear Springs made a call for its water in 2002 that triggered several legal disputes between fish farmers and the state. Cope and his 400 employees own the company, and he sees it as his duty to protect the right to the 58-degree water that flows into their hatchery raceways.
“We do have a desire to find balance and protect our rights,” he said.
Groundwater pumpers have been struggling with the issue for more than a decade, and Martin said they, too, are ready to work on a long-range plan.
“If it has taken 50 years to cause this
problem, it shouldn´t surprise us that it will
take that much time to heal the aquifer,” Martin
Patrick Orr is the public safety, courts and crime reporter at the Idaho Statesman; this should be something he looks into in much greater detail. Does cutting off people's water represent a public safety issue? Does putting the economy of a million-acre area constitute crime?
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