Idaho ranks No. 2 in total irrigation withdrawals

A farm field near Nampa, Idaho, is irrigated in August. Data compiled by a University of Idaho agricultural economist shows that Idaho ranks No. 2 nationally in total irrigation withdrawals.

BOISE — Idaho, which ranks 39th nationally in population, ranks No. 2 in total irrigation withdrawals.

Six Idaho counties rank in the top 20 nationally for total irrigation use.

“We have an agricultural economy that is built on water,” said University of Idaho Agricultural Economist Garth Taylor, who compiled that data to show how important water is to Idaho farmers.

Agriculture is the top sector in the state’s economy, according to UI studies.

“Idaho is big in irrigation and agriculture is big in Idaho,” Taylor said.

The state ranks No. 5 in irrigated acres but rises to No. 2, behind California, when it comes to total irrigation withdrawals.

That’s because Southern Idaho, where most of the state’s 2.8 million irrigated acres are located, is a desert and farmers there are heavily dependent on the state’s reservoir systems to grow their crops, said Lynn Tominaga, executive director of Idaho Ground Water Appropriators.

“Keep in mind those other states (with more irrigated acres) use irrigation as supplemental water because they get (more) rain,” he said. “They have more irrigated acres but they only use it when it doesn’t rain. We use it 24/7.”

Taylor said he compiled the data to show how important water is to the main driver of Idaho’s economy — agriculture — and no apologies should be made for the states’ farmers using so much water.

“That’s our competitive advantage; we have water here in the state,” he said. “Why not use it to produce food in Idaho. We’re using our water to create wealth and feed the world.”

Idaho Water Users Association Executive Director Paul Arrington incorporated some of Taylor’s water data into a position paper his organization put together to show how important water is to the state.

It will be given to the U.S. State Department to use in the upcoming Columbia River Treaty modernization negotiations.

Using Taylor’s data as well as information provided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the position paper points out how important water is to four projects in the Snake River basin: Boise, Palisades, Minidoka and Owyhee.

It shows that, combined, the projects provide irrigation water that is used to produce $3.5 billion worth of crops and livestock.

“Water provides a significant economic impact in southern Idaho,” Arrington said, and if the treaty is altered in a way that requires changes in the operation of the Snake River system, “there could be significant consequences.”

Taylor found that 97 percent of water withdrawn in Idaho is used for agriculture, compared with 77 percent in California, 88 percent in Oregon and 68 percent in Washington.

He also found that total water withdrawals in Idaho, and around the West, have declined since the 1970s, as farmers have become more efficient in using it to grow their crops. “There’s this big myth that we’re using more water. We aren’t,” he said.

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