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Idaho Power Says No to Aquifer Recharge

by Jennifer Sandmann
Times-News, May 6, 2004

TWIN FALLS -- Idaho Power Co.'s stance on aquifer recharge dates back to 1984 and the pivotal Swan Falls agreement that allowed for continued development of upstream water resources.

Swan Falls is the reason Idaho Power Co. says it cannot support large-scale aquifer recharge in efforts to replenish streams along the Snake River's edge. Company officials said Wednesday they would be forced to defend their water rights in court.

"We on behalf of our ratepayers can't stand to have our water rights violated," said John Prescott, vice president of power supply.

Lost sources of hydropower generation would force the company to generate more power from coal and buy more power on the wholesale market, he said.

"Any additional costs would be borne by the ratepayers," Prescott said.

Ironically, many of those ratepayers are irrigators interested in pursuing aquifer recharge.

Today, Idaho's largest electric utility will outline its position at a high-powered water conference in Boise. Also on the agenda to speak is John Keys, chief of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Both entities are crucial to southern Idaho water users' ability to use aquifer recharge as one option in the toolbox of potential solutions to water shortages involving the Snake River and the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer that spans 10,000 square miles from Ashton to King Hill. Recharge isn't the only solution but is considered one of many including conservation, curtailment and alternative water supplies.

Idaho Power's position on recharge isn't a surprise to other water users long familiar with the issues. But they hope the company won't maintain a hard-line stance to all recharge efforts.

"Recharge" involves channeling river water through canals to targeted areas where it can seep into the soil and raise the water table.

That means working with the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates federal dams and owns some of the canals.

It also means working with Idaho Power. The company generates hydropower at 12 dams on the Snake River from American Falls to Hells Canyon. It operates under a state agreement at Swan Falls southwest of Mountain Home. The agreement allows for continued upstream water development for "beneficial uses" in areas like Magic Valley as long as the river is running at least 3,900 cubic feet of water per second at the Swan Falls dam during the irrigation season. That's about 1.7 million gallons a minute. Lower flows would mean upstream curtailment of junior water users.

In 1984 when the agreement was reached, aquifer recharge wasn't envisioned as a beneficial use, said Greg Panter, vice president of public affairs for Idaho Power. In 1994, when legislation was adopted naming recharge as a beneficial use of state water, the new law specifically stated that it did not change the terms of the Swan Falls agreement, he said.

Flows at the Murphy gauge near Swan Falls are in a downward slide, dropping an average of 43 cfs annually for a total loss of 1,850 cfs since 1961, Prescott said. That amounts to an average loss of about 140 megawatts that could have been generated at the company's Snake River dams downstream from Milner. It's roughly enough power for 100,000 homes.

If measures aren't taken to replenish the aquifer, Idaho Power won't have anyone left to sell power to, said Lynn Tominaga, director of Idaho Groundwater Appropriator Inc.

"I'm hoping that Idaho Power won't take such a hard stand," he said.

In some years, such as this one, recharge water won't be available, Tominaga said. But in high water years it would be and he said he hopes Idaho Power will be open to those discussions. Recharge ultimately could require new legislation addressing Idaho Power's water rights, he said.

Chuck Coiner, a Twin Falls Canal Co. board member who is running for the state Senate, said he doesn't see Idaho Power as a roadblock to recharge efforts. He said that the company has a right to protect its water rights, but he doesn't think it can prevent water users from renting available reservoir water for recharge.

Jennifer Sandmann
Idaho Power Says No to Aquifer Recharge
Times-News, May 6, 2004

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