New State Law Boosts
by John O'Connell
Idaho water users say a new state law helped them recharge more water in the aquifer during a big water year.
BOISE -- Idaho water officials say tens of thousands of acre-feet of water that would have otherwise flowed unused to the ocean were put to good use, thanks to a new state law.
On May 18, the state suspended managed aquifer recharge operations on the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer -- after tallying a record 313,060 acre-feet of surface water injected into the groundwater table through unlined canals and adjacent spill basins.
Brian Patton, Idaho Department of Water Resources Planning Bureau chief, said the state recharged 138,736 acre-feet in the Lower Snake River Valley over 189 days, and 136,019 acre-feet over 78 days in the Upper Valley. The remainder was in the Big Wood River system, where recharge is continuing.
The state has committed to averaging 250,000 acre-feet of annual recharge to help reverse a trend of declining groundwater levels and has been developing infrastructure to boost its recharge capacity. The Idaho Water Resource Board holds a 1,200 cubic feet per second recharge water right that remains in priority throughout winter in the Lower Valley but is only in priority in the Upper Valley following especially wet winters, when flood-control releases are made to free reservoir space.
The state pays fees to canal companies that lend their systems to the recharge effort. Water managers are now focusing on topping off reservoirs. With a hefty mountain snowpack remaining, the Upper Snake system was 73 percent full as of May 22.
This spring, roughly 2 million acre-feet of flood-control water flowed out of the state without being used. More water would have been wasted had the state Legislature not passed a law allowing canal managers to recharge the surplus water without a valid recharge right. Patton said the law enabled the state to increase its recharge program above its water right, resulting in more than 80,000 acre-feet of additional water throughout the season. At the peak of the recharge program in mid-March, Patton said the state exceeded its recharge right by 2,100 cfs during a four-day period.
Lynn Tominaga, executive director of Idaho Ground Water Appropriators Inc., said his member groundwater districts have leased roughly 50,000 acre-feet from canal companies that conducted recharge this spring without a right, under the new law. Tominaga said the water will be used as mitigation and applied toward mandatory water-use reductions well users have agreed to make under a water call settlement agreement with senior surface irrigators. He said much of the water has been leased by the Bonneville-Jefferson Groundwater District, which came up short in meeting its 2016 reduction goal, though the districts met the goal on the whole.
Luke Hicks, who represents the Great Feeder Canal system on the Upper Snake's Committee of Nine and chairs a recharge subcommittee, said the main-stem Great Feeder conducted recharge for the state. His Burgess Canal, which is supplied by the Great Feeder, recharged about 6,400 acre-feet for Bonneville-Jefferson under the surplus water law, and is considering a long-term relationship to recharge for the groundwater district. Other Great Feeder canals collectively recharged about 10,850 acre-feet for other groundwater districts, using the new law.
Hicks said Burgess will use recharge revenue to complete studies or paperwork to facilitate future recharge, though he acknowledged this was an unusually wet year.
"I'm not very confident in this surplus thing being a permanent way to do recharge," Hicks said.
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