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Cause for the smugs

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Idaho has some tough water law, and it’s enforced.

That’s a big reason Idaho isn’t slipping into the water chaos California is beginning to see.

The California headlines would be comical if they didn’t reflect a serious reality: “Starbucks moves water operation out of drought-stricken California . . . Israel to California: Here’s how to save water . . . Water wasters could be fined $10,000 . . .”

Idaho, which has more limited water supplies, is being pressed this year – drought is hitting parts of the Gem State too – but not in such extreme ways. A large part of the reason is this: People in Idaho (southern Idaho, anyway) are accustomed to the idea of a stern water regulation regime, have abided by it for many years, and have accepted the need to make hard decisions from time to time.

One of those problem areas – the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, covering more than 10,000 square miles in Idaho and from which much of southern Idaho’s groundwater is drawn – has been accelerating for years. On its website, the state Department of Water Resources notes, “For a variety of reasons, groundwater levels in parts of the ESPA declined, leading to a cumulative decrease in aquifer storage, decreased spring flows and changing Snake River flows that resulted in insufficient water supplies to satisfy existing beneficial uses.” And it gets worse in dry times like . . . now.

That has led to new planning by the state, but the practical impacts are immediate.

Last week, after a long meeting organized by House Speaker Scott Bedke, groundwater and surface water users reached an agreement that may settle the state’s biggest water issues for some time to come. Surface water users, many of whom have senior water rights, have seen their flows diminished in recent years and pointed a collective finger at the more junior groundwater users. The state Department of Water Resources, which is legally obliged to sort out the relative claims, has for some years been putting increasing pressure on groundwater users – trying to avoid massive shutdowns that could wipe out many businesses, but meeting obligations to senior users.

After negotiations running for years, the groundwater operators had to find a way to come up with 89,000 acre-feet of water by May 1. That’s a lot of water.

The solution was to take a bite out of their collective water usage: 13 percent of their overall claims.

Brian Olmstead of the Twin Falls Canal Company told the Twin Falls Times News that, “We came to an agreement that can keep people in business. But it won’t be business as usual.”

It is likely to be painful. But the situation is at least being managed in a practical way.

California, which until recently has been the only western state which didn’t regulate groundwater use, is an example of what can happen in the alternative. When legislation allowing local agencies to help regulate groundwater users (for obvious reasons, this would be far less effective than statewide management) was proposed, many farmers warned of over-regulation and land devaluation. As a practical matter, a state water executive described how “in the absence of governance, it’s become a pumping arms race. He with the biggest pump or deepest straw wins.”

Idaho can feel smug about this one.

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