© 2022 Boise State Public Radio
NPR in Idaho
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
The StoryCorps Mobile Tour is back in Boise!

Drought Forces Water Talks In South Central Idaho

Thomas Hawk/Flickr Creative Commons
The Big Wood River in 2014.

Part of Blaine County, home to the Sun Valley Resort, is in an “extreme” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The area has experienced some level of drought consistently since February.



Last winter, mountains in the Pioneer, Smoky and Soldier ranges saw record low precipitation; several snowpack monitoring sites recorded only half of the 30-year average snowfall.  

Low snowpack didn’t bode well for spring and summer streamflows. From April through July, a Big Wood River gauge in Hailey reported water levels at only about half of the 30-year average. Farmers who depend on water from the Big and Little Wood rivers for irrigation received less water as a result. However their crop losses and other damages were mitigated by heavy precipitation the year before, which filled reservoirs before the winter. 

“2020 may not be the worst, but it was right up there — probably the top 10% as far as how little water was in the system,” said Kevin Lakey, the watermaster for Water District 37, which distributes water from the Big and Little Wood rivers. 

Lakey said some surface water users — farmers in the Shoshone and Richfield areas — were hit hard this year.

“Maybe instead of getting three or four crops of alfalfa hay, say they only got two,” he said.

He added that 99% of water users above Magic Reservoir had their water cut off early. But groundwater users — whose rights often have a lower priority — were able to continue pumping even through the strapped water conditions, Lakey said, which frustrated surface water users, most of whom are supposed to have higher priority according to Idaho law

“If a certain user is just allowed to be above the senior priority doctrine because there’s a drought, that’s an issue,” he said.

The tension and disputes over water in this region aren't new, but they tend to come to a head in drought periods. 

The Idaho Department of Water Resources recognized declining groundwater levels in the basin 30 years ago, when it established a groundwater management area. However there’s currently no management agreement like in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer that delineates specific requirements for groundwater users and the state so that surface water users can receive their full allotment. 

Over the years, surface water users in the Wood River Basin have filed two formal complaints. Those water delivery calls argued they weren’t receiving all the water their rights allowed. Those complaints were rejected by the Idaho Department of Water Resources on procedural grounds in 2016.  

Following that, the region had a few years of heavy precipitation when issues over water use weren’t as much in the spotlight. But, with this year’s drought, the surface water users asked Director Gary Spackman of the state Department of Water Resources to get more involved. 


Spackman brought both sides together in a new committee that met for the first time this week.

“I guess we’ll see how much they’re willing to talk and whether they can craft a solution that’s acceptable,” he said. 

Groundwater users also think it will be beneficial for the Department of Water Resources to facilitate the discussions, said Pat McMahon, the chairman of the Galena Ground Water District. 

Gary Spackman said any solution will require compromises. But he said a negotiated agreement could prevent the cost of lengthy legal battles that’ll be likely with more years of water shortages. 

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen 

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.