Idaho Well Users Owe
by John O'Connell
Groundwater irrigators owe 89,000 acre feet of water by May 1 to satisfy the Surface Water Coalition's call this year.
Southern Idaho groundwater irrigators now face their largest obligation in the 10-year history of the Surface Water Coalition's delivery call and fear they may fall short in their efforts to provide mitigation.
Coalition members -- American Falls Reservoir District No. 2, Twin Falls Canal Co., A&B Irrigation District, Burley Irrigation District, Milner Irrigation District, Minidoka Irrigation District and North Side Canal Co. -- say springs that supplement surface flows in Snake River reaches between Blackfoot and Milner Dam have declined as a result of well irrigation.
Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman recently ordered the groundwater users to provide 89,000 acre feet of water by May 1 to offset injuries to AFRD No. 2 and Twin Falls Canal Co.
Absent a sudden shift toward wetter weather nullifying the debt, any shortfall in mitigating for the full amount would result in curtailment of well users with the most junior water rights.
Lynn Tominaga, executive director for Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, Inc., said he's been out "begging for water" and has found little.
"It's very doubtful we'll get to 89,000 acre feet," Tominaga said.
Tominaga believes the obligation is excessive, contending the water outlook was bleaker in 2010, when IGWA owed just 84,000 acre feet. That year, wet summer weather arrived, and IGWA's $1.3 million water investment went to waste.
Furthermore, Tominaga questions the Bureau of Reclamation's allocation of 100,000 acre feet of water to augment flows for salmon health this season, as per an agreement with the Nez Perce Tribe. Tominaga noted salmon flow augmentation heightens competition for storage water.
IDWR Deputy Director Mat Weaver said the 100,000 acre feet was on the borderline of being necessary, and no augmentation would have been required under Reclamation's formula had the agency's water supply forecast been just 1 percent lower.
As for the discrepancy with 2010, Weaver explained IDWR has implemented a new methodology to calculate diminishing reach gains, in compliance with a court order.
Another policy change this season allows Spackman to revisit the water supply in mid-season and further increase IGWA's obligation, if necessary.
"I think the day is coming where groundwater pumpers may have to do what surface irrigators have had to do for years and do some things to preserve their water. That probably means crop selection and better management," said Stan Hawkins, a member of the Upper Snake River Basin's Committee of Nine, representing the Great Feeder Canal Co. "In a year like this, we've got lots of canals that I represent that simply cannot count on having enough water to raise a crop of corn or a crop of potatoes."
Surface Water Coalition attorney John Simpson said his clients suggested the methodology change to make estimates with the best tools available. Simpson said the storage system wasn't built to provide mitigation water, and groundwater users will always face uncertainty if they continue using it for that purpose. He advises well users to fallow land or procure additional permanent water sources as "insurance," as surface users have done.
Simpson predicts a tight water season.
"Every irrigation entity except for Twin Falls Canal Co. is on storage water, and we're in the third week of April," Simpson said.
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