Courtesy Idaho Department of Water Resources
POCATELLO, Idaho — Idaho Water Resource Board Chairman Roger Chase is booked to address members of a congressional subcommittee on Oct. 4 about the state’s proactive and unique approach towards reversing decades of declining groundwater levels in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.
Chase will speak to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water regarding Idaho’s program of intentionally injecting surplus surface water into the aquifer, a practice known as managed recharge. The state has its own recharge water right, which avoids the need to buy water and keeps costs down.
“Really as people have looked at it, they’ve found our recharge program is probably one of the best in the nation,” Chase said.
Chase, who will be among a small group of Western leaders presenting on their recharge efforts, said he also plans to suggest measures the federal government should take to help Idaho’s program remain successful. He’ll ask Congress to approve language that would give the state greater flexibility to wave a requirement that Upper Snake canals remain closed for at least 150 days following the irrigation season to build up Palisades Reservoir levels. The change would help accommodate upper valley recharge using spring flood-control releases. Chase will also request additional language facilitating recharge partnerships between the state, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Land Management.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, serves on the subcommittee.
“Less federal regulation and more common sense with regards to state water rights need to be pursued,” subcommittee member Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said via email.
Thanks to an especially wet winter, Idaho recharged more than 315,000 acre-feet of water during the 2016-2017 recharge season, under the state’s water right. Private entities recharged another 140,000 acre-feet. Furthermore, Idaho groundwater users have agreed to cut their well irrigation by a combined 240,000 acre-feet per year to help build the aquifer, under terms of a water call settlement, and the state has had a moratorium on new well development within the aquifer for several years.
Idaho, which recharges mostly through unlined canals and adjacent spill basins, is investing millions to build up its recharge capacity but has also capitalized on the existing infrastructure of canal companies, who receive fees to open their systems to the state’s water.
“One of the things we’re going to talk to Congress about is the fact that we’re using existing infrastructure, which saves us millions and millions of dollars,” Chase said.
Chase is optimistic that planned infrastructure upgrades will allow the state to increase its recharge capacity by 50 to 100 percent within the next year. He said Idaho plans to soon expand its recharge program into the Treasure Valley and Northern Idaho.
The state’s recharge coordinator, Wes Hipke, was involved for years in running Arizona’s recharge program. Hipke said Arizona and Idaho have the two most significant recharge programs in the U.S., and Idaho is unique in that its program aims to build up the aquifer solely for the public good, rather than to mitigate for a specific impact or as the basis for a private credit system.
Jerry Rigby, chairman of the Western States Water Council, said members of his organization are also closely following Idaho’s efforts and have invited Idaho Department of Water Resources Deputy Director Mat Weaver to speak during their October meeting in New Mexico.
“We’ve been telling them what we’ve been doing with recharge, and all of the Western states are saying, ‘We’re interested in that. Tell us how you’re doing it,’” Rigby said.