IDWR starts Lower Portneuf water rights enforcement

Randy Smith, watermaster of the Lower Portneuf River water district, stands along the banks of the Portneuf River at the pump he uses to irrigate alfalfa behind his Pocatello, Idaho, home. Smith has been asked to notify members of his district that they must curtail their water use for the first time, based on the Surface Water Coalition's water call.

POCATELLO, Idaho — Before July 27, administering water rights for the Lower Portneuf River was an informal process, involving gentlemen’s agreements and neighborly handshakes.

But now, Idaho Department of Water Resources officials say management of Water District 29-D will be more typical and structured.

In the midst of a banner water year marked by plenty of water in most watersheds, IDWR has instructed the district’s watermaster, Randy Smith, to notify users of the first water call curtailments in the Lower Portneuf’s history. The water district was formed in 2011, but administration of water rights hadn’t been feasible until now, based on the completion of the Snake River Basin Adjudication about three years ago, explained IDWR Water Compliance Bureau Chief Tim Luke.

“Now the adjudication is over and we have a unifying decree signed by the district court,” so it’s time to do it, Luke said.

Smith, a retired phone company worker who irrigates a couple of small alfalfa fields in Pocatello, initially notified irrigators with rights junior to 1903 to curtail their water use. Curtailment notices were broadened Aug. 6 to cover irrigators with rights junior to 1900.

The district includes 313 water rights junior to 1900, most of which are used to irrigate 10- to 15-acre pastures, lawns or small alfalfa fields.

In 2016, senior irrigators with the Surface Water Coalition reached a settlement with groundwater users whose wells were reducing Snake River spring flows. IDWR is now looking at upstream surface users who have been diverting out of priority. In normal water years, Luke said 1,900 Portneuf surface rights would be curtailed a month or two earlier than this season. He noted many water rights on the system’s tributary streams are “self regulating” in dry years, as they dry up before the water rights expire.

“This is something new going forward,” Luke said. “It’s not going to be easy starting off.”

Smith anticipates many of his users will simply ignore the order, believing it’s illogical to dry their land to deliver a pittance of water to users more than 100 miles away — especially during a year when it’s not needed. He understands state law gives priority to senior users, but vows his district’s members will push for statutory reforms to avoid waste. He doesn’t plan to seek re-election as watermaster.

“The way it’s always been in this district is, OK, I may have an older priority date and you may be junior, but you take a little bit and I’ve got enough to get me by,” Smith said. “It’s always been a neighborly thing, and now it’s just a law thing.”

Luke said the department is also laying the groundwork to eventually start actively administering Water District 29-H, which will affect southeast Idaho irrigators who draw from Marsh Creek. In addition to enforcing the coalition’s call, Luke said IDWR plans to address some out-of-priority diversions affecting senior users within the same district. Luke said it could take a year or two for the Marsh Creek district to become active.

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