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Wood River Valley Irrigators Testify Amid Possible Water Shut-Offs

An alfalfa field in the Wood River Valley
Samuel M Beebe
/
Flickr Creative Commons
An alfalfa field in the Wood River Valley

Some farmers in the Wood River Valley could have their water shut off this summer in the middle of their growing season. Ongoing extreme drought conditions and long-standing water rights disputes are to blame.

Surface water users — farmers who get their water from reservoirs or rivers — have senior water rights in Idaho. In the Wood River Valley, surface water users say groundwater pumpers — who have junior water rights — are unfairly depleting the resource.

The Department of Water Resources has been working toward a resolution in the region, but with especially low snowpack and streamflows this spring, the issue is more urgent.

Senior water users are going to be hurt this irrigation season, said Mat Weaver, the deputy director of the department.

“This groundwater management plan that we're working towards, ostensibly, it's not going to be ready in time to provide relief to the senior water users,” he said.

A satellite map of the Bellevue Triangle area where groundwater users could face a curtailment this irrigation season.
Screen capture of Idaho Department of Water Resources map
A map of the Bellevue Triangle area where groundwater users could face a curtailment this irrigation season.

The department is holding administrative hearings over the course of two weeks, starting Monday, to determine whether water will be shut off this summer for groundwater users in the Bellevue Triangle, an agricultural area south of Bellevue where there are roughly 325 irrigation wells.

Alfalfa, wheat and barley are the most common crops grown there, according to the University of Idaho extension in Hailey.

Department of Water Resources staff believe shutting off groundwater pumping in the Bellevue Triangle this year would increase surface water flows on Silver Creek, a tributary of the Little Wood River.

Surface water users who get their supply from Silver Creek could benefit if the Bellevue Triangle wells are shut off. But Weaver said they will need to prove during the hearings that they’ll be hurt if the groundwater users are free to continue pumping.

“Perhaps that means they grow less crops, or they have to plant different crops, or they have to terminate crops early — rather than getting two or three cuttings with alfalfa, they only get one,” Weaver said of the case the surface waters could make.

Both sides will present their positions to Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman who will determine an outcome. The decision won’t affect domestic water users.

Spackman also sent curtailment notices to 129 groundwater users in the Magic Valley and Eastern Idaho late last month due to below-normal snowpack in the Upper Snake River Basin. Other farmers in the area could stop getting water in the middle of the growing season due to low water levels in Magic Reservoir.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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