Everyone knows Southern Idaho is a high desert place, generally short on water, without which we wouldn’t have the growth and prosperity we have. But what’s lesser known is the tremendous efforts being put into the state’s water capacity, or how those efforts are assuring water “security” in the state for many years ahead.
This isn’t happening by happenstance but, rather, by planning, hard work and common endeavor of many participants, from water managers and user associations, to water boards, to agencies, private sector entities, cities and counties, and the state’s political leadership.
It’s been known for decades that the Snake River Plain Aquifer, on which our economy depends, was being overly-appropriated. The aquifer itself is thought to hold about 115 cubic miles of water over some 10,000 square miles, roughly the size of Lake Erie. But beginning in the 1950s, over-appropriation has taken its toll. It’s thought that outflow through various uses were exceeding inflows by perhaps 200,000 acre feet per year.
Now for the good news, the really good news. The downward trend has been reversed since 2016 and replenishment of the aquifer is taking hold. From then through 2017, about 1.7 million acre feet have been added back and this year’s replenishment to recharge is adding another 350,000 acre feet.
The turnaround comes from several initiatives: One, a robust recharge program is getting recharge water into Southern Idaho recharge sites; these have been known for years, but weren’t fully developed.
Two, good snowpack years and steady but not flood-stage runoff has allowed water managers to better direct both storage and outflows. It’s now estimated that well monitoring is in place for 98 percent of aquifer users, which helps mangers manage outflows.
Three, a major water settlement agreement, led by legislative leaders and water user groups, has brought significant order to water allocation fights which had gone on for decades. The particulars included state financial investment in the recharge effort, as well as agreements among users to curtail use under new guidelines. New legislation this year put additional “teeth” into the law, essentially prodding reluctant participants to follow the new rules.
Many parties deserve kudos here. Water users, both surface irrigators and groundwater pumpers, each gave a bit as they witnessed a declining aquifer. A series of water calls and subsequent court rulings essentially upheld the prior appropriation doctrine of first in time, first in right, thus smoothing the legal landscape.
Another key player has been the Idaho Department of Water Resources, which previously struggled to balance both permitted development while effectively managing allocation of an aquifer in decline. The agency, with clear authority and legal tools, is handling the balance well between allocation and development.
Yet another key entity has been the Idaho Legislature, which under the cool, let’s-solve-this approach of House Speaker Scott Bedke, has brought the sparring parties to the table and to a settlement. There have been bumps as various parties have scrapped over each getting their “fair share” and having someone else pay, but over time, those issues have been worked out.
This past session, legislators added additional input by approving improvements to Anderson Ranch Reservoir to increase capacity, additional capacity added at Walcott Lake and adding capacity for Mountain Home Air Force Base, thus allowing for its continued commitment to Idaho.
Other key entities have been the canal companies, municipalities and private sector senior users like Clear Springs Foods, which have gone to the table time and again in good faith to both assert their water rights and carve out long-term solutions.
Are Idaho’s traditional “water wars” from the Treasure Valley to Ashton completely over? Probably not. As long as water is scarce and the region remains a high desert, there will always be disputes. But perhaps, just perhaps, we’re entering a new era where whiskey is more for drinking and water is for less fightin.’