Aquifer recharge effort opens door to new water
By JOHN O'CONNELL
Glenn Dalling and his family have waited nearly 23 years for a water right to grow hay on their Hamer, Idaho, cattle ranch, seeking stability from fluctuating winter feed prices.
They may soon have the elusive water thanks to a private aquifer recharge program, Recharge Alliance, Inc. It grants credits, redeemable by groundwater users who buy them, to surface water rights holders who let excess water seep into the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.
Dalling was days from breaking ground on irrigation wells when supply concerns prompted a December 1989 moratorium blocking new drilling within his Mud Lake Basin.
Another moratorium that remains in place today was issued May 15, 1992, covering the entire Snake River Basin.
The program still requires approval by the director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources and could face legal challenges by opponents. Once running, David Tuthill, a partner in the project representing Upper Snake Mitigation Solutions, which spearheaded the effort, said the program will make it possible to irrigate more agricultural land without taking other land out of production. He said cities, developers and corporate clients have also expressed interest.
Last fall, member canal companies spanning from the Rockford and Thomas area to Ashton injected about 30,000 acre-feet of water into the aquifer. After harvest, they fill their canals and let the water seep into the aquifer. They get paid for the water. Of that, Tuthill said 14,000 acre-feet will remain in the aquifer next spring, when he hopes credit owners will claim water for the first time.
He said 500 applications for water permits remain unfilled in eastern Idaho due to the moratorium.
Anyone interested in obtaining a permit should call Tuthill at 208-870-0345.
"We're paving some new ground here," said Tuthill. "We think this is a good plan, but we have to go through the process of obtaining the proper approvals."
Recharge credits are based on the same aquifer model the state uses in considering water calls. Bryce Contor, an alliance participant who helped develop the state model, estimates two-thirds of the private recharge water will be utilized. A separate state program also recharged 107,400 acre-feet this spring. He tracks the water available, where it come from and grants credits.
"I think where we did try to do a lot of recharge in 2011, that has helped the spring inflows," said Lyle Swank, watermaster over the Snake River Plain.
Alliance co-chairman Keith Esplin, who represents Blackfoot area canals, considers recharge to be a cost-effective storage option to building new reservoirs, which can be challenging due to expense, scarcity of locations and environmental concerns. Eventually, he said the alliance hopes to build canals specifically for recharge, routing water to sink into lava flows.
Idaho Ground Water Appropriators holds several credits as a partner in the alliance. IGWA Executive Director Lynn Tominaga said the alliance clearly has the right to offer credits as protection against water calls. He considers approval of new uses, such as Dalling's application, to be a gray area that may require legislative action. While allowing new uses could enable IGWA to sell credits, Tominaga noted his organization is dedicated to protecting existing uses.
"Folks are saying the aquifer is still going down and there isn't room for additional uses," Tominaga said. "We haven't decided which side of that issue we want to be on yet."