Idaho water users concerned over water right application

John O'Connell/Capital Press Ririe Reservoir, located on Willow Creek near Ririe, Idaho, stores water upstream from a pending water right, which would open new acres for irrigation on the Eastern Snake Plain. Some critics of approving the 2016 water right, which would be supplemented by storage leases, fear new water development on the plain shouldn't occur while efforts are underway to reduce consumption.

RIRIE, Idaho — Water users involved in a 2015 water call settlement aimed at stabilizing Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer levels are concerned about a pending application to irrigate new farm ground in the region.

Only one party filed an objection, which was later withdrawn, during the alloted time period to protest Century Holdings, LLC’s March 3 application for a 2016 water right on Willow Creek, the stream that’s dammed to form Ririe Reservoir north of Idaho Falls.

But parties involved in the broad Surface Water Coalition water call settlement — including Twin Falls Canal Co. and Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, Inc. — say the application flew under their radars, and they would have protested had they known about it in time.

“I think the question is, ‘Should the state of Idaho be developing new ground when every year there’s going to be a curtailment order to shut acres down?’” asked IGWA Executive Director Lynn Tominaga.

Century Holdings has applied to divert 20 cubic feet per second of stream water to irrigate 1,712 acres now farmed on dry land. Natural flows would have been in priority in the Snake River tributary for at least a couple of weeks during 10 of the past 26 years, according to the Idaho Department of Water Resources. The applicant plans to supplement its water right with a long-term storage lease from Enterprize Canal Co., and would build a pump station to divert water from Willow Creek into a pressurized pipeline.

“The intent would be to divert storage water, inject it into Willow Creek and take water out of Willow Creek as an exchange, below the point where they would divert for their irrigation,” said Jeff Peppersack, IDWR’s chief of the Water Allocation Bureau.

Peppersack said IDWR is reviewing the application and a decision should come within “the coming weeks.”

Peppersack said the water right lies outside of a broad area of the Snake Plain in which a moratorium on new consumptive water development has been in place since 1992.

“It’s been uncommon to have any large applications, especially when you’ve got other people who are cutting back in order to stay within their (recent settlement) agreement,” said Lyle Swank, watermaster for the district that includes the Upper Snake Plain.

Efforts were unsuccessful to reach the applicant and its attorneys with Holden, Kidwell, Hahn & Crapo.

However, in a letter to Swank, attorney Robert Harris said Enterprize prefers to lease the water in the upper valley, rather than to IGWA for mitigation downstream, and he questioned the district’s neutrality on the project.

“It appears that there is something about this application that you do not like, and as a result, you have provided multiple opportunities for individuals to effectively protest the application even though the permit application is past the protest period,” Harris wrote.

His letter said the applicant is following long-established policies and seeks no “special treatment.”

Brian Olmstead, general manager of Twin Falls Canal Co., would like to see better notification about such proposals.

“We don’t think there’s room for any more expanded acreage in the Snake River Plain while everybody else is trying to fix the aquifer,” Olmstead said. “We’re trying to dry up acres. We’re sure not trying to expand acres.”

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