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Governor Little issues Executive Order to resolve Idaho water fight – for now

The challenging waters of Idaho's irrigation needs became even more turbulent in recent weeks, with water users working through disagreements over the proper management of this precious resource. Mountain States Policy Center wrote about the Eastern Idaho curtailment issues last year here and here. But even after this past year was filled with many discussions on the issue, the problem was even worse for the 2024 growing season. 


Idaho water users have been working to resolve their differences over the ability to use water for years, and this spring some groundwater users were restricted by the Idaho Department of Water Resources in the southern part of the state. This action could have led to 330,000 acres of farmland being curtailed, unless a mitigation agreement could be reached. All sides shared concerns over the potential loss of cropland and the potential economic damage to farmers across Southern Idaho, while at the same time honoring prior agreements to conserve water and ensure that the Snake River Aquifer remains a stable and plentiful source of water.  

The waters have calmed for now, when surface water users and ground water users came to an agreement this week allowing water to be turned back on for the season. However, the agreement has only delayed a resolution. To ensure calm and plentiful waters remain, it is going to take a long to-do list in the coming months. 


At a press conference to end curtailment and announce the agreement, Governor Little said:

“Just like we’ve done over and over, Idahoans came together, resolved our differences and found a path forward to protect farmers and our water supply for the year. However, we recognize we still have a lot of hard work to do. We will be OK for this year, but we all agree we need a better plan in the years ahead to protect our farmers and ensure Idaho maintains our water sovereignty. We remain committed to working with all water users in Idaho to ensure we have a sustainable supply of water for this generation and future generations.”


The announcement and new Executive Order means that ground water users and surface water users will function on the agreement and objectives reached in 2016, not the new model that requires curtailment. If the ground water users increase water conservation efforts by 240,000 acre feet and divert 50,000 acre feet of storage water to surface water users, they will avoid curtailment for this year. There are six objectives the agreement prioritized:

  1. Improve understanding of the aquifer. 

  2. Convene the interim Natural Resources Committee prior to the 2025 legislative session to find opportunities to improve water infrastructure. 

  3. Prioritize funding for projects that have net benefits to the aquifer. 

  4. Governor will bring stakeholders together to propose solutions to long-term water sustainability. 

  5. Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer Groundwater Management Plan Advisory Council will continue to meet to create a Groundwater Management Plan submitted by September 1, 2024. 

  6. Groundwater users will meet to establish an improved mitigation plan as as possible, no later than October 1, 2024. 


The two sides of this issue know some changes still need to be made. 


Kent Fletcher, the attorney for the Surface Water Coalition said:

“Despite all efforts since the mitigation plan was signed in 2015, the ESPA continues to experience declining aquifer levels, spring discharges and reach gains into the Snake River, which supply the SWC senior water rights. The SWC looks forward to negotiating amendments to the mitigation plan that address concerns of the groundwater districts while improving management, enforcement of groundwater pumping and recovery of senior surface water supplies. The SWC seeks a mitigation plan that incentivizes compliance, is enforceable and ultimately avoids findings of injury to senior surface water rights every year.”


Idaho Ground Water Association (IGWA) Chairwoman Stephanie Mickelsen said:

“The way the Idaho Department of Water Resources currently goes about managing the ESPA is not working. Without meaningful change to how water resources are managed, we will find ourselves right back in this same position and all of Idaho will end up paying the price.”


The Executive Order signed on June 26 has high hopes that Idaho water users can continue to come together to reach a workable agreement for next year. For the sake of all involved, let’s hope that these now calmed turbulent waters can remain that way.  

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