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Idaho's water supply the focus of governor's summit

Magic Reservoir holds 191,000 acre feet of water, but before the dam opened for the start of irrigation season, it only had about 45,000 acre feet.
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio News
2021 was the shortest water year for farmers who rely on Magic Reservoir in south-central Idaho since the canal company started keeping records in 1977.

Lieutenant Gov. Scott Bedke said if one thing is on the mind of people across Idaho, it’s the sustainability of the state’s water supply.

“We live in the arid West, we’re one of the fastest growing states in the nation, and just because we are, doesn’t mean they’re giving us any more water,” he explained.

This drove the organization of a day-long water summit by Gov. Brad Little, which brought together lawmakers, water managers and farmers in a statehouse auditorium on Monday.

“We’ve got to balance our water budget,” Bedke said. “We can’t take more out than is going in.”

Throughout the day, presentations covered topics from big-picture drought conditions to how small aquifers are faring. Nearly every part of Idaho has been grappling with water supply over the past few years due to drought conditions that have been easing this year in southern Idaho, but are still gripping the northern part of the state.

Little stressed the need for Idaho to address conflicting water laws, so priorities and policies are aligned. He said the state doesn’t want a “Colorado River situation,” where several states are grasping for a dwindling supply and the federal government is intervening to propose cuts.

“Most of our Western neighbors have other states, federal courts, federal regulatory agencies, and Congress meddling in their water rights,” he said. “If we don't control our own destiny, one of those entities will.”

Little said he intends to protect Idaho’s “water sovereignty.”

“To pass down to our family farm communities, we need to make sure we have the water to sustain crops,” he said.

One of the most sensitive topics discussed during the summit was the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, the largest underground water source in the state, lying beneath south-central and eastern Idaho. Water levels in the aquifer are declining again, despite a celebrated water agreement and a few years of heavy snowfall that temporarily improved the situation.

“The future looks pretty gloomy,” said Jay Barlogi, the general manager of the Twin Falls Canal Company. “Without appropriate management of the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, it’s difficult to envision a water year in the future that doesn’t involve water supply reductions.”

Jaxon Higgs, representing the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, said to get the aquifer back on track, the state will need to make more investments in its management. This should include recharging more river water back underground, he said.

“Well done to date,” he said in a message directed to government officials and lawmakers. “But there’s a lot to do, and please, we’ve got to keep the money coming.”

Although a predicted 75,000 acre-foot water shortage in the region has so far not materialized, tensions persist between farmers dependent on Snake River water and those relying on the aquifer.

Jeff Raybould, Chair of the Idaho Water Resource Board, said the state will continue sorting out water disputes, but needs to work within the “first in time, first in right” law that determines water rights seniority.

“We’ve got to learn how to be more efficient, but we cannot usurp people’s private property rights that are associated with the water rights that they hold,” he said.

Little said the legislature might consider addressing some of the management issues discussed during the summit, such as implementing more real-time measurements of water use.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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