TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Eastern Snake Plain groundwater irrigators who have been ordered to install flow meters on their wells by the start of the 2018 irrigation season are more than halfway toward meeting their goal, according to Lynn Tominaga, executive director of Idaho Ground Water Appropriators Inc.
The Idaho Department of Water Resources issued the order in June of 2016, and irrigators have until April 1 to comply.
Groundwater users drawing from the aquifer agreed to install flow meters in 2015 under the terms of a water call settlement with the Surface Water Coalition’s senior irrigators. IDWR officials later chose to make flow meters a general requirement to avoid deterring water users from participating in the settlement.
Tominaga said at the time of the settlement, 3,700 of the roughly 4,900 wells on the ESPA requiring measurement did not have flow meters.
“The Magic Valley, Big Lost and Southwest irrigation districts all tell me they have 75 percent installed, and North Snake is above 60 percent,” Tominaga said.
Mat Weaver, deputy director with the Idaho Department of Water Resources said the department has received several requests for extensions, or exemptions, from the requirement. He said any irrigator who hasn’t installed a flow meter or been granted an exemption or extension will be “subject to enforcement action.” Typically, he said the department gives irrigators notice of a pending violation, but reserves the right to shut off wells if anyone ultimately fails to comply.
Tominaga said some logistical challenges have slowed progress.
“It’s going to take some time,” Tominaga said. “We’re having some problems with the number of installers. All of the guys doing the installations are backed up.”
Tominaga said IDWR is also backlogged on inspecting wells and signing off that flow meters have been installed correctly.
“I’ve got one district that has 200 wells that need to be inspected,” Tominaga said.
Lyle Swank, watermaster over the water district that encompasses the ESPA, believes the groundwater districts are “on track” to meet the requirement.
“It’s a big job,” Swank said. “I know there was a ramp-up issue when dealers had to order meters and other things were being done.”
Tominaga has received WaterSMART grants through the Bureau of Reclamation available to five of his eight groundwater districts. The grants cover up to 45 percent of flow meter installation costs, estimated at about $5,400 per well.
IGWA should also learn soon if it will receive a $5.5 million grant from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service toward additional flow meter installations. Tominaga said NRCS has already indicated that IGWA is in the top 50 among 230 original applicants and has “better than a 50-50 chance.”
Tominaga explained the intent of the grant would be to direct the funding toward the five districts that received WaterSMART funds, but “there’s the possibility of working with NRCS to spread it across the ESPA.”
The order allows the longstanding formula of using power costs to estimate water diversions from wells to continue only under the simplest scenario, involving a single well serving a single pivot. Implementation of flow meters has been slow within the Jefferson-Clark Groundwater District because officials there have requested several variances, arguing they meet the terms for continuing power cost-based estimates, Tominaga said.
The new closed-conduit flow meters must be accurate within 2 percent, but past IDWR audits have concluded power-based calculations are commonly off by at least 10 percent.
Small wells irrigating less than 5 acres, or drawing less than 0.24 cubic feet per second, and domestic or stock water wells are exempt from the order.