Judge rules grower wells can’t recover canal seepage

Steve Howser, general manager of Aberdeen-Springfield Canal Co., located in southeast Idaho, stands by a running recovery well, which returns water that seeps through the bottom of his canal back into his system. A district judge recently ruled against the company in its lawsuit seeking the right to use a grower's well for recovery.

ABERDEEN, Idaho — Idaho canal companies can’t use growers’ wells to recapture water lost through seepage from their unlined systems, according to a recent ruling by Fifth District Judge Eric Wildman.

Southeast Idaho’s Aberdeen-Springfield Canal Co. has been using its own recovery wells along canal banks to return subsurface water into the system since the early 1930s.

The company’s general manager, Steve Howser, explained in the heat of summer, the company used to have difficulty keeping up with water orders, prompting shareholders representing about 15,000 acres to dig supplemental wells. Eventually, some growers switched entirely to well water, helping the canal company better balance supply and demand. But in the wake of the Surface Water Coalition’s call targeting well irrigation for reducing spring flows into the Upper Snake River, many farmers have leased their well water and requested that their canal shares be filled once more, Howser said.

Rather than delivering water directly, Howser said, his board opted to ask those growers to turn their wells over to the company, declaring them as “recovery headgates.” Well water would be deemed recovery water and pumped directly to growers’ sprinkler systems.

“From a company standpoint, it seemed a little bit unreasonable and ridiculous to make them drill a well right next to the one that was already there,” said Randy Budge, an attorney representing the canal company.

Howser said the company planned to designate four growers’ wells as recovery headgates, beginning last season with grower Jeff Duffin’s well.

The company filed suit defending Duffin’s recovery headgate after the Idaho Department of Water Resources challenged the practice. In his recent ruling granting IDWR’s motion to dismiss without a full trial, Wildman concluded recovery wells must be dug by the holder of the water right — the canal company in this case — for the sole purpose of recovery.

Howser said the company won’t appeal the ruling.

“We think the judge gave a very clear answer, and that was what we were looking for,” Howser said.

Howser explained the canal loses about 61 percent of its water through seepage — about 190,000 acre feet — and the largest volume ever recovered by its nine recovery wells was 2,400 acre feet. He said pumping is more costly than gravity feeding river water through canals, and the recovery wells are used as short-term solutions to getting water quickly to the extremities of the system and its lateral canals.

The Surface Water Coalition intervened in the case in support of IDWR, contending using a grower’s well for recovery violated the “clear meaning of the statute.”

“When you have a supply that’s in decline, any new well that hadn’t been pumping that will be pumping has the possibility of diminishing the water supply for a downstream user,” Coalition attorney John Simpson said.

Howser now plans to apply to renew a drilling permit for a new recovery well. Given that recovery wells are relatively unique to the Aberdeen-Springfield Canal, conditions for drilling them must be clarified, and Wildman has sent the matter back to IDWR. Howser said issues such as the appropriate depth of recovery wells and the required proximity to canals must be resolved.

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