POCATELLO, Idaho — Idaho groundwater districts participating in a water call settlement with senior surface water irrigators exceeded their water-conservation goal in 2016, according to a new report.
The major concession in the settlement reached in the fall of 2015 with the Surface Water Coalition requires Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer well users to reduce their combined consumption by an annual average of 240,000 acre-feet. According to the coalition’s call, well use has led to diminished spring flows into the Upper Snake River, at the expense of surface irrigators.
The eight participating groundwater districts — Aberdeen-American Falls, Bingham, Bonneville-Jefferson, Carey Valley, Jefferson-Clark, Fremont-Madison, Magic Valley and North Snake — collectively beat their goal by nearly 35,000 acre-feet. Water conservation was achieved either by directly reducing well irrigation or through managed recharge, which involves intentionally injecting surface water into the aquifer to offset impacts of well irrigation.
The performance report must be submitted annually by April 1 to a steering committee comprised of the chairman of each groundwater district and a representative from each Surface Water Coalition member. The Idaho Department of Water Resources is also reviewing the report for accuracy and will provide its analysis to the steering committee by July 1.
“It was a pretty difficult start for them last year to get it all organized, but I think they showed a lot of good effort and pretty much did what they said they’d do, and some of them even more,” said Brian Olmstead, general manager of the coalition member Twin Falls Canal Co.
Olmstead noted the settlement calls for milestones to be met toward reversing decades of aquifer declines, as recorded by 19 “sentinel” wells. He’s encouraged that an IDWR program is on pace to exceed its own 250,000 acre-foot recharge goal. A wet winter should also help the aquifer with incidental recharge, he said.
The report shows Fremont-Madison Irrigation District/Madison Ground Water District beat its individual goal by the widest margin — more than 24,000 acre-feet. However, the Bonneville-Jefferson and Magic Valley groundwater districts fell well short of their individual goals.
T.J. Budge, an attorney with Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, Inc., explained the settlement is based on an average of years, so districts and individual water users that fell short of their 2016 goals will be expected to reduce more in the future.
Budge said many growers had to make “real sacrifices,” such as drying land at a time of low commodity prices.
“It’s a learning process, and the pumpers will continue to learn as they go and find out the most effective ways to reduce their water use,” Budge said.
IGWA Executive Director Lynn Tominaga believes the lessons of the settlement’s first year are that reducing well use is more challenging than many envisioned, and more infrastructure is needed to recharge flood waters during wet springs — both to serve the state’s program and private recharge efforts.
“Learning to manage water to meet the settlement agreement is different for each individual farmer, and we’re finding that out,” Tominaga said. “There isn’t any set system that applies to everybody.”