BELLEVUE, Idaho — A bill in the Idaho Legislature would put Blaine County groundwater irrigators in a better financial position to respond to a recent water delivery call.
Groundwater districts are allowed to borrow up to $1 per irrigated acre from lenders against their future assessments to organize, finance mitigation plans or tend to other district business.
The pending bill, S1169, which passed out of the Senate Resource and Environment Committee March 23 and was headed for a vote by the full Senate, would increase the borrowing limit to $3 per irrigated acre.
The noncontroversial statute change would help about 190 Blaine County groundwater irrigators, representing 25,000 farm acres, cover initial costs of the water call, as well as the expense of hosting a county election to form a groundwater district.
Attorney Al Barker, who represents some of the well users, said Blaine County has estimated the election cost at $10,000 and required a bond for twice the amount.
The water call was filed in late February by 63 surface irrigators, drawing from the lower Little Wood River system and the Big Wood River system below Magic Reservoir. The senior irrigators claim surface flows have diminished, as well use has reduced spring levels.
“Looking at what it was going to take to respond to the call, they felt the dollar per acre limit was going to put a crimp on what they were going to be able to do,” Barker said.
Barker said the bulk of the funding will be needed to hire a hydrology expert before the end of this year.
The Idaho Department of Water Resources has sent roughly 500 potentially affected groundwater users notice of a May 4 status conference in Shoshone.
The agricultural groundwater irrigators, who farm in the south county, plan a May election to form a groundwater district. The rest of the affected irrigators, mostly residential users and municipalities, will organize a separate groundwater district and are planning a November election.
A groundwater model for the Big Wood River Valley aquifer is in development and should assist in analysis for the call. IDWR expects to complete the model by the end of this year.
Kevin Lakey, watermaster for Water District 37, which includes both surface and groundwater users, said a challenge to calibrating the model is the lack of historic records on the aquifer, where many wells were fitted with their first water gages in 2013 and 2014.
IDWR hydrology section manager Sean Vincent said his department’s three groundwater modelers are collaborating with two modelers from the U.S. Geological Survey on the project, estimated to cost about $400,000 to complete. They’ve formed a technical advisory committee, with representatives from the various stakeholders, to offer input on model development.
In addition to the call, Vincent said the model will be utilized for longterm planning by the Idaho Water Resource Board.
“We have an initial model, and we’re in the calibration process,” Vincent said. “The one thing about the Wood River Valley is it’s a smaller area, but we don’t have a lot of data.”