BOISE — State leaders say Idaho’s economic future hangs in the balance as surface water and groundwater users seek to hammer out terms of a tenuous agreement resolving a decade-old water call.

Irrigators with the Surface Water Coalition filed the call against junior well users on the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer in response to the role of their pumping on declining spring flows into the Snake River from Blackfoot to Milner Dam.

Rather than pursuing a solution to eek through a single season, as in the past, the sides have proposed a monumental plan to address underlying causes behind the unsustainable groundwater outlook, thereby averting future water calls.

They agree failure to act would leave Idaho on a path toward a depleted aquifer and well curtailments that would devastate farms and industries from Magic Valley to Ashton. State political leaders, including Gov. Butch Otter and House Speaker Scott Bedke, have taken a lead role in facilitating negotiations.

“I am optimistic we’ll have a valid, defensible proposal that each of these entities can take back to their boards and put on the table,” said Bedke, an Oakley farmer and rancher who is acting as mediator in the discussions. “It’s too important to not be successful.”

The urgency to resolve the longstanding problem was heightened on May 1, when groundwater users failed to meet a deadline to acquire 89,000 acre feet Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman ordered in mitigation for this season’s surface water injuries.

But Spackman stayed curtailment — which would have affected wells junior to 1982, including more than 86,000 acres of agricultural land, cities and industry — when the parties announced their intentions to negotiate a long-term settlement.

The sides have agreed on broad concepts.

The Coalition has withdrawn its methodology order, which sets the rules governing curtailment. Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, Inc., will provide 110,000 acre feet of mitigation water this season, which should now be feasible given heavy May rainfall.

Perhaps the hardest pill for IGWA irrigators to swallow is a proposed mandate that they reduce their water usage by roughly 13 percent in the future to conserve 240,000 acre feet annually, about equal to the aquifer’s rate of decline. The reduction would be averaged out over a few years to accommodate rotations with higher-water crops.

IGWA would also provide the coalition a flat 50,000 acre feet of mitigation water annually. In wet years, mitigation water could be left to soak into the aquifer, called managed recharge.

IGWA will also spend about $1.1 million per year to expand “soft conversions” that switch well users to surface water when possible.

To monitor progress, wells would be fitted with meters, replacing less accurate consumption estimates based on power usage. And water rights transfers would be scrutinized more closely.

A final term sheet addressing the finer points of the agreement is due to Spackman by July 1, and the sides have until Aug. 1 to get the plan approved by as many of their members as possible. Groundwater users who opt in will be granted safe harbor going forward; those who don’t will remain subject to curtailment.

The state has also agreed to devote resources toward building aquifer levels, promising to build new infrastructure for conducting aquifer recharge, with the goal of injecting 250,000 acre feet of surface water into the aquifer annually.

“The good news is everyone is kind of willing to do their part, but they don’t want to do the part their neighbor is responsible for,” Bedke said prior to mediating negotiations in Pocatello on June 18.

Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, who farms with surface water, believes groundwater users could achieve much of the proposed water savings by removing pivot end guns and better maintaining sprinklers to reduce leaks.

“When there’s accountability — and a 13 percent reduction creates that accountability — people will watch their crops and not over-water,” Patrick said.

But Patrick fears large-scale curtailment would be economically devastating.

Brian Olmstead, general manager of Twin Falls Canal Co., predicts farmers will also have to change crop rotations and farming practices. Olmstead, whose company was one of two Coalition members that stood to receive mitigation water this season under Spackman’s order, anticipates well irrigators will shift from raising water-intensive forage crops to more water-efficient malt barley.

“This may very well have a limiting affect on expansion of dairy cow levels on the aquifer,” Olmstead said.

He believes growers may opt to graze rather than plant their least productive ground.

“There are ways to conserve water and still make a profit,” Olmstead said.

Olmstead hopes additional savings will be achieved by eliminating illegal diversions.

IGWA attorney Randy Budge expects most affected groundwater users will opt into the agreement, but agrees they’ll have to raise fewer water-intensive crops and fallow some acres to meet the necessary reduction.

“We’re at a crossroads where we can have chronic pain or acute pain,” Budge said.

Farming practices of the past, such as running canals during winter and flood irrigating crops, artificially enhanced aquifer levels through extra seepage.

The aquifer peaked around 1960. Then levels began a steady and continuing decline, largely due to the rise of efficient sprinkler irrigation and the expansion of groundwater pumping.

“There have been a lot of industries built up on the water levels that were at least temporarily artificially enhanced by early irrigation practices of flood irrigation,” said Lyle Swank, watermaster for the district that includes the Upper Snake River.

Nearly 30 years ago, Idaho was among the first states to acknowledge concerns with its major groundwater source when it commenced with the Snake River Adjudication — an exhaustive process to catalogue tens of thousands of water rights and establish how much water was available to be appropriated. The recent completion of that process, coupled with improvements to state groundwater models, has opened the door to water calls by senior users, in a state governed by the principle “first in time, first in right.”

To date, calls have all been resolved through mitigation plans, but absent change, water managers fear the day will come when curtailment is the only option.

The Coalition’s call stems from spring declines at the center of the aquifer and encompasses well irrigators throughout the Snake Plain.

Growers in the aquifer’s eastern portion are less experienced at dealing with water calls. Swank believes they face a steep learning curve but will be critical to the agreement’s success.

“There are people who haven’t been on the front lines of this who don’t understand how big of a concern it could be if they don’t get a permanent solution,” Swank said.

Growers also eagerly await answers to questions regarding how much credit farmers should receive for their past efforts to implement water-efficient farming practices and the amount of burden that should be placed on junior well users relative to pumpers with more senior rights. Bedke said such details will likely be addressed by individual groundwater districts.

There are even questions regarding whom should be at the table, based on a recent court ruling Fifth District Judge Eric Wildman rendered in a call filed by the Rangen, Inc., trout farm in Hagerman. Wildman disagreed with IDWR’s justification for a trim line — a practice excluding portions of the aquifer from calls in which the injured party would derive relatively insignificant benefits from well curtailments.

A trim line was also applied in the Coalition’s call, excluding about 20 percent of the aquifer below parts of Rexburg, St. Anthony, Bliss, Wendell and King Hill. Though the Coalition’s trim line was based on different rationale, IDWR Deputy Director Mat Weaver said it’s on shaky ground, given the Rangen ruling, and growers within the designated area of common groundwater but outside of the trim line could be affected by a future call.

Otter said he won’t let such details derail the agreement.

“Reaching a consensus agreement that takes into account all of the competing needs and the limited resource is absolutely necessary for continuing development and economic growth in the watershed,” said Mark Warbis, a spokesman for Otter. “We’ve long since passed the time when we can consider surface and groundwater as a separate resource.”

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