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Idaho's water resources department says management is getting more expensive with population growth

A groundwater well sits above the ground in an agricultural field.
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
A groundwater well in the Bellevue Triangle that farmers use to get water from the aquifer below.

Water management in Idaho is getting more expensive with continued drought and population growth, according to the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

This year, the department has a number of big management and infrastructure projects it wants to fund, utilizing some large one-time appropriations that could be at its disposal.

On Wednesday, Director Gary Spackman outlined several line items in a presentation to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. They include $716,000 for aquifer recharge and monitoring and $336,300 for personnel and equipment to manage a major water rights resolution process in the Bear River Basin.

The department also wants to hire additional personnel to manage water rights, groundwater well development and hydrologic models.

Overall, the requests center around the idea that more people and money are needed to manage water in Idaho, as the population continues to grow at a fast rate.

"I want to echo what the state engineer said in 1895," Spackman said. "And that is that water is a scarce resource and that as we have more people, there will be more and more attention on the resource, and more and more demands. And my personal opinion is that it will be exponential."

Spackman said there are 5,000 wells being drilled in the state every year.

"I don't know whether that, in the future, means that there might be some restriction on well drilling. I don't have that vision right now," he said,."But it may come to that."

Water rushes through a tunnel into a man-made lake in the Magic Valley desert.
Idaho Department Of Water Resources
Water from the Northside Canal rushes into a basin that will seep into the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer

With more demand for a scarce resource comes more legal disputes about who gets what. From the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer to the Big Wood River and now to the Portneuf River, the state is increasingly being asked to step in to manage water rights. Spackman says the disputes are growing more complex, and often involve court challenges.

“That’s the level of attention that people are giving to water resources these days," he said.

After the resolution of the water rights disputes, there's often an increased need to measure where water is going – both surface water and groundwater. In two years from now, water managers could be measuring stream flows at about 10,000 sites throughout the state – up from 3,000 five years ago, Spackman said.

If approved, the department could have some help on its priorities from one-time funds, including $100 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and $75 million under Gov. Brad Little’s proposed budget for water infrastructure projects.

The water resource board would likely decide how to distribute those funds among some of its highest-priority projects: a sustainable water project at the Mountain Home Air Force Base, reservoir enlargement at the Anderson Ranch Dam and aquifer recharge in the Upper Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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