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Agreement Keeps Irrigation Water On In Wood River Valley

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

Farmers in an agricultural area south of Bellevue went without irrigation water for one week, after Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman issued a July 1 curtailment order on groundwater pumping for the remainder of the season.

Spackman determined groundwater pumping in the Bellevue Triangle this year -- amid an extreme drought -- would mean surface water users wouldn’t get all the water they had rights to. Surface water users typically have older and more senior water rights than groundwater users.

This week the parties came to an agreement that allows groundwater users to continue irrigating through Aug. 15.

Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke traveled to Picabo and Richfield to help broker the deal.

“There was a lot at stake there, with 23,000 acres being dried up this time of year with this heat wave -- it was very serious,” Bedke said. “Those landowners would’ve lost their crops.”

The arrangement brings senior surface water users who normally get water from the Little Wood River and Silver Creek an alternative water supply so that junior groundwater users can continue pumping from their wells. Some of that water is being donated by the Twin Falls Canal Company.

“These were other farmers that knew the need and couldn’t stand idly by if they could help, and they stepped up and helped,” Bedke said.

Groundwater users have to make sure enough water is still flowing in the river for surface water users. The agreement also said water users have to work together to come up with a long-term management plan by Dec. 1.

“It makes a substantial difference,” said Pat Purdy, farm manager of Picabo Livestock Co. The farming and livestock operation currently relies mostly on groundwater because much of its surface water rights are already shut off.

Purdy said under Spackman’s curtailment order, two-thirds of his farm’s property was not going to have any water on it for the rest of the season. It would’ve meant “significant” loss of crops like malt barley and alfalfa, and loss of fall pasture and forage for winter feed.

Though some crops were damaged without a week of water, Purdy said more irrigation time will help salvage some revenue from the barley and alfalfa and will allow the farm to grow some pasture.

“It’s turned a disastrous situation into just a very difficult situation,” Purdy said. He said he’s grateful to the senior surface water users for coming to this agreement.

But he said the challenges of water availability in this valley are not over -- and they could end up re-shaping the face of agriculture in Blaine County.

“When we’re faced with short water years like we have for the last two years, that’s going to make it very difficult for producers to continue to grow season-long crops in this area, unless you have some very good surface water rights,” Purdy said.

Scientists have found climate change will make consecutive low-snowpack years in the American West much more common, leading to more agricultural 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.

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