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Idaho water fight is hard to see through

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Like murky water, it’s hard to see through the current Idaho water fight. As farmers watched the above average snowpack accumulate all winter, Southern Idaho growers are waiting to hear if they will be permitted their full allotment of water. If the answer is no, some 900 farmers will face curtailment after the crops have been planted, because they do not have an active mitigation plan.

Even more growers will face curtailment in future years if the new methodology goes forward, despite cooperating with existing agreements and following established mitigation plans.

Why would water allotments be cut when the snowpack is above average? The answer is frustratingly opaque.

The current water fight stems from the prior appropriation doctrine that governs all western water. “First in time, is first in right,” means senior water right holders will always have priority, a standard practice in the west. In the Eastern Idaho area, the rights of the senior water-users (canal irrigators and fish farms) of the Magic Valley are protected against the more junior water right holders that irrigate from groundwater resources.

The Surface Water Coalition (SWC) was formed in 2008 to represent the interests of the senior water right holders in Southern Idaho. The Idaho Ground Water Association (IGWA) represents the interests of more junior water right holders. Over the last two decades multiple agreements have been made to respect seniority and protect the Eastern Snake River Plains Aquifer.

To administer agreements between the two irrigation groups and the interests of the aquifer, the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) issues methodology orders. The previous Fourth Amended Methodology Order was released in 2016. It was praised as a collaborative achievement between the interested parties, and required junior water right holders to establish and follow mitigation plans to avoid curtailment. The newest methodology endangers this security for growers that kept up their end of the bargain.

The latest, Fifth Amended Methodology Order, was published on April 21, 2023. The order, estimates a 75,200 acre-foot shortfall in water needs for 2023. The junior water right holders will be expected to meet this need. In such a wet year, the estimated shortfall comes as a shock, though the consequences this year can be eased for most growers in groundwater districts. A previous 2008 agreement allows the junior water holders to find and lease the shortfall amount from reservoirs and other canal companies, if its available.

But the fear is building for the future. In years of normal or low snowpack, water will not be available to lease and over 700,000 acres of Idaho farm ground will be threatened by curtailment. The new methodology will mean an increase in shortfall predictions and curtailment, as IDWR tries to hit the moving target of predicting the future weather, months in advance.

One expert opinion disagrees with the Fifth Amended Methodology’s assumptions and argues that if even a few of the assumptions are changed within the reasonable error, the junior water right holders would be above their expected mitigation and not owe the senior water right holders any water during this very wet year.

A hearing occurred last week (June 6-10) on the Fifth Amended Methodology, in front of the director of the Idaho Water Resource Board. Growers are expected to have a decision sometime this week if the curtailment goes forth.

Who is to be held accountable for the shortfall? Is it the groundwater users or more senior canal users? Is it agriculture alone or is the blame to be shared with the exploding population? Is the IDWR’s new methodology even a fair assessment?

The issue over Eastern Idaho’s water will be clarified slightly when the Director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources issues a decision. The upcoming decision should only be the start of the water conversation. Idaho policy needs to fairly distribute the costs and responsibility of water conservation, while respecting the rights of all water-right holders.

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