Most of the United States – the lower 48 at least – is in drought, has been for many weeks, and various kinds of disaster loom in many places.
Idaho is luckier than most of the country. In this year of water trouble in many places, it has two advantages.
One is the part Idahoans have no control over. The Northwest generally got lucky this year, with decent winter snowpack and adequate spring rain, coupled with mostly (and relatively) moderately temperatures this summer. Most of the country wasn’t so fortunate.
The other part, which Idaho has been able to affect, is water management. And that may come into important play in the next few years if Idaho’s summers start to match more closely with the nation’s.
For all the rustic and rural feel of Idaho’s water system (it doesn’t seem especially high-tech), it is one of the most sophisticated water management systems in the country. It is thoroughly developed, both in close watch of the water supply and in overseeing how the water is used. Aquifers are not unusual underground water systems nationally, but Idaho’s seem to be better managed than most; aquifer recharge, to make up for normal drawdowns, is a significant part of water management in the Gem State. None of this is to suggest that Idaho’s system is perfect or that there aren’t any legitimate criticisms, but an Idahoan familiar with his state’s system would have some cause to look down on what many other states do.
The Snake River Basin Adjudication is a major part of that. The SRBA, now about 25 years old, may seem to many Idahoans an eternally running, neverending court case that achieves little. And they would be wrong. Most western states have adjudications. And generally, they have been running far longer than the SRBA and are nowhere near as close to completion, and that includes adjudications far smaller than the Snake River’s. (The SRBA is the largest water adjudication in the country.) Idaho probably stands as the nationwide leader in this area.
When the SRBA is done, water use for nearly all of Idaho will be codified, and people throughout the basin (which takes in 87 percent of the state) will know where they stand – how much water there is, and who gets to use how much and for what. That’s powerful knowledge.
Just how powerful could easily turn up, before long, in Idaho politics.
Idaho is becoming increasingly urban and especially suburban. Most of the water used in the state is used by irrigators, to water sometimes water-intensive crops in a near-desert climate. Up to this point, there’s been generally enough water to go around – mostly, and most of the time. But recent years have seen a series of water calls (insistence on delivery by senior water right holders) in agricultural areas. What happens when the water supply is stretched thinly enough that urban areas are told: Your junior water rights mean you may be cut off?
Things may not unfold quite that way. But a few more dry years and more urban population growth could put the long-running rural domination of much of Idaho politics to its most severe test.