What The Wood River's 'Exceptional' Drought Year Means For The Future Of Farming In The Region
Driving around the southern part of the Wood River Valley, there’s very little water feeding the farmland. Instead of alfalfa and barley growing, the landscape is a scattering of dry, grassy fields.
Kevin Lakey, the water manager for this region, drives up to the ranch with the most senior water rights to the Big Wood River, which starts in the Sawtooth Mountains.
“First in time, first in right," he said. "The Black brothers were here in 1880, they got here before everybody else got into the valley. Before the mines started, they were going to ranch here. So, they have the oldest right, they have the right to the water.”
But the river is not flowing to this ranch, located south of Bellevue, because it can’t get here. Right now, it’s mostly dried up south of Hailey.
“The river is so dry, the aquifer is so depleted, that the river is just running into the ground and just trying to go back into the aquifer to the east from here," Lakey said.
This is just about the worst drought that’s ever been recorded here, and it’s been going on for a little more than two years.
Runoff from snowpack to the Big Wood, Little Wood and Big Lost Rivers could set record lows this season. And those numbers weren't helped by dismally low precipitation totals this spring, and record-high temperatures this summer.
In the eastern part of the watershed, Pat Purdy’s family farms alfalfa, malt barley and mustard seed at Picabo Livestock Company. They also have 750 cows and calves.
It's mid-August and the farm has just one small source of water left. It comes from Silver Creek, a tributary of the Little Wood River, which runs through the property.
Purdy points to one small field, still bright green, where an irrigation sprinkler is still going.
“This is some new seeding alfalfa, cause it’s somewhat delicate still," he said.
The farm only has about 15-20% of the water it would normally have this time of year. That means Purdy has had to make tough decisions about what gets water and what doesn’t. If they had more, they’d be irrigating lots of land for cow and calf pasture.
“Now the good news is we still have some water," Purdy said. "There’re a lot of farmers who have zero water right now.”
Early in the season, Purdy said, they’d already taken steps to prepare for a year with limited water.
For the first time ever, they left about 250 acres dry. That would normally be planted with more malt barley, which the farm sells to Anheuser-Busch and Coors for beer.
“We had contracts to grow crops I didn’t plant," he said.
Purdy’s family has been farming here for a long time. They bought this land in 1883, initially as an investment, around the time they helped build the railroad through Picabo up to Sun Valley.
That’s the year they got surface water rights to the river. But eventually, in the 1940s and 1950s, the family dug wells to get more water from the aquifer below. Lots of farmers in this region were mining for groundwater during this time.
In wet years, Silver Creek gives the Purdys all the water they need. But in dry years like this one, it gets used up too quickly, and groundwater carries them through. This year, the 1883 river right stopped in late June, so the wells came on.
Tapping underground water has angered farmers who only get river water. Their water rights — dating back to the 1880s — are senior to the newer groundwater wells. And they say taking the water from the aquifer affects how much they get from the river.
It’s been a slow-boiling argument since the 1990s, when the state designated this basin a Groundwater Management Area, meaning it was worried about declining groundwater levels. But the state hadn't taken action, aside from creating predictive models and prohibiting new agricultural wells, to limit groundwater usage here — until this summer.
The director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources, Gary Spackman, held an administrative hearing in June and ordered 200 groundwater wells south of Bellevue completely off on July 1st — including the four on the Purdys' property.
“For it to happen pretty abruptly and in the middle of the season, I think really took some people by surprise,” Purdy said.
23,000 acres of farmland were affected. But the shut-off only lasted one week. The parties came to an agreement that allowed the water to come back on for five more weeks, through mid-August.
“We were pleased with the result that our senior surface rights were recognized as being in jeopardy from interception by more junior users," said Cooper Brossy, who farms between Gooding and Shoshone.
He gets most of his water from Silver Creek and is part of an association of senior surface water users. They were happy the department stepped in this summer. Still, it was a tough year for those farmers who get their irrigation water from rivers with record-low flows.
“It meant that they would have to expect reduced yields on crops that were able to be produced, or drying up and fallowing of acres that they did not have water for," Brossy said.
He said he knows of at least four livestock producers who sold their cattle or reduced their herd size because growing feed was too expensive.
Though both sides expressed relief that this summer's agreement came together quickly, there's an understanding that a more long-term, system-wide solution is needed.
For one, some surface water farmers south of the Bellevue Triangle were not part of the proceedings and had to make do with less than a month of water from Magic Reservoir.
This fall, the parties will come together again. They have a December deadline to come up with a groundwater management plan. Though the issues are long-standing, they're more urgent as dry years become more common with climate change.
“We’re obviously seeing some significant changes in our climate," Purdy said. "You can dance around that and not call it climate change, but it sure feels like climate change to me.”
One thing the groups will likely have to figure out is how much groundwater pumping will be allowed depending on the expected snowpack and precipitation. Purdy thinks the groundwater "budget" will be lower than people are expecting.
“There’s no doubt it’ll change Blaine County," he said. "If we have another year like 2020, 2021, you’re going to see a significant amount of fallowed ground in this valley.”
There just won't be enough water for all the groundwater users, with more junior water rights, to feed all the crops they normally grow, he said.
In general, groundwater users want as much stability as possible from the management plan. Surface water users want their senior water rights upheld.
Then there are other issues that'll likely play a role, like the health of fisheries and the river itself. This summer, the Nature Conservancy completely closed the Silver Creek Preserve to fishing for the first time ever because of high water temperatures.
Though this summer’s water battle was a very local one, in a relatively small agricultural region in the state, it could be an indicator of things to come across Idaho, said Brossy.
He thinks we’re heading into a time when people will look much more closely at the available water supply. And when it comes off the mountains, into canals and up through pumps, it’ll be more heavily managed.
“Because when we have extreme droughts like we had this past year, everyone needs as much water as they can, and yet no one has enough," he said.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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