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Water shutoffs avoided for Idaho farmers

A center pivot irrigation sprinkler near Deerfield, Kan.
Charlie Riedel
A center pivot irrigation sprinkler near Deerfield, Kan.

Farmers in southern Idaho who irrigate crops with groundwater won’t face a water shut-off that the state had predicted might happen mid-summer.

That’s according to a new order from the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

A few years of drought put a lot of stress on the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer – so much so, that even after this year’s strong snowfall, the state predicted some farmers might not have all the water they usually get this summer.

Those affected would be groundwater users because their rights are more junior to farmers who get water from reservoirs and canals. The state is charged with making sure senior water rights holders get their water. Depending on the water supply in a given year, that means it sometimes moves to cut those with more junior rights off.

In May, IDWR estimated about 900 groundwater rights filed as far back as 1953 could be shut off to make up for an estimated 75,000-acre-foot water deficit.

But this week, the state issued an update saying that’s not necessary at this point. Water managers found June precipitation was strong enough to get by, plus the state changed the methodology for determining who needs to be curtailed and when.

The decision can be appealed, and the state will check the water supply again in August to see if it still holds.

Ryan Searle grows wheat and potatoes in Bingham County and gets some of his water from the aquifer. He said despite the news that groundwater pumps can keep going during an important part of the growing season, farmers in his area are still concerned about their access to water long-term.

The message he hears amid ongoing negotiations is that some farmland might need to come out of production to keep delivering water to those with the oldest rights, which he disagrees with.

“Counties that produce the most wheat, barley and potatoes in the entire state shouldn’t even be farming?” he questioned.

He thinks the groups need to come together again, so the current water agreement between senior and junior rights holders that was negotiated in 2015 works for everyone.

Dan Davidson said that agreement does work. He manages an irrigation district in Rupert which delivers reservoir water to farmers, largely those with senior water rights.

But, he agrees with Searle that it’s time to come back to the table.

“There’s a lot of anger right now, and we’ve got to get past that,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, this is all the water we’ve got to deal with.”

Based on the weather conditions this spring, Davidson said he wasn’t surprised by the IDWR order this week. However, he cautioned that if it stays hot and dry, it could affect next year’s supply.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radi

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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