Irrigators consider leasing water from Power County

John O'Connell/Capital Press Builders make improvements at a Valley Agronomics fertilizer distribution facility at the former FMC Corp. plant site near Pocatello, Idaho. Power County voters approved an $8 million bond to purchase the water rights from the former FMC site and say they could be used to help with city growth, attract new businesses and aid agricultural irrigators facing water cutbacks.

AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho — Plans to build a large fertilizer plant here have apparently fallen through, but local farmers may still benefit from the water rights secured by the project’s backers.

Unable to secure nearly $3 billion for construction, officials of Texas-based Magnida approached Power County shortly before the November election offering to sell the two senior groundwater rights they’d purchased for the proposed nitrogen fertilizer plant.

About 80 percent of county voters approved $8 million in 30-year bonds toward the $10 million purchase of the groundwater rights, which have 1949 and 1951 priority dates, for a combined 6,153 acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to flood a football field a foot deep.

Magnida transferred the rights, formerly held by FMC Corp.’s phosphate plant near Pocatello, to its industrial park site in anticipation of building the plant.

Doug Balfour, an attorney representing Power County on the agreement, said March 1 is the anticipated closing date for the water rights purchase, but the county has already begun discussions with several parties interested in leasing the groundwater. He met with the Aberdeen American Falls Ground Water District’s leadership on Dec. 15.

The district may lease some of the water to help mitigate a roughly 12 percent annual reduction in groundwater use required under the terms of a 2015 water call settlement with the Surface Water Coalition. The water could also help the cities of American Falls and Rockland compensate for groundwater use reductions required to satisfy the coalition’s water call.

Some large farms and agricultural processors have also inquired about the water.

Balfour said the rights are appraised at $13 million.

“It looks like it was a very good, timely purchase for Power County,” Balfour said. “I just spoke with a person who sold his water rights in the area for $4,500 per acre-foot. We paid a little under $2,000 per acre-foot.”

Power County Commissioner Ron Funk said the county’s primary interest is having water available for any businesses interested in locating in the community.

“If we have another business come and it needs water, it would be pretty difficult to get a water right anymore,” Funk said. “If you’ve been following water in Idaho, you know it’s becoming more and more of a scarce commodity.”

Tim Deeg, president of Idaho Ground Water Appropriators Inc., predicts more land in his area will be taken out of production because of the settlement. He believes leasing some of the water could curb lost acreage. Deeg said water leased by the district would likely be applied to help all members slightly reduce their cutbacks.

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