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State Eyes Aquifer Recharge

by Dave Wilkins, Idaho Staff Writer
Capital Press, May 7, 2004

BURLEY, Idaho -- Idaho needs to be ready to recharge the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer during the next plentiful water cycle, a special legislative panel was told in April.

Replenishing the giant underground reservoir would help farmers and spring users in Southern Idaho who’ve been locked in a battle over the diminishing resource.

When the current drought cycle ends, the state needs to be ready to channel surplus water into the aquifer, the panel was told.

“I think we need to have these recharge sites ready for the next time that we have another big water year,” said Albert Lockwood, an Eden, Idaho, farmer and chairman of the Committee of Nine, an Upper Snake River management group.

Without some managed recharge sites, surplus water during good years would be lost down the Snake River, water managers said.

The Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, with its fractured basalt layers, is ideal for recharge, said state Rep. Jack Barraclough, a hydrologist from Idaho Falls.

“There’s not a better place in the country to recharge water than on the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer,” Barraclough said.

But it could take years for aquifer recharge to have a widespread effect. Even in the long run, recharge may not be enough to satisfy the demands of all the water users in the region, experts said.

“Don’t put all your eggs in the recharge basket,” advised Chuck Brockway of Brockway Engineering in Twin Falls. “It’s not going to do it all for you. It’s not a panacea for restoring the aquifer.”

The aquifer has been so depleted over the years and the demands on it are so great that even in a best-case scenario, recharge efforts probably won’t be enough to satisfy all water rights holders on the system, said state Rep. Scott Bedke, a rancher from Oakley. “Even in a perfect world we aren’t going to get back to where we want to be,” Bedke said.

The aquifer, which covers about 10,000 square miles from Ashton to King Hill, is 5,000 feet deep in places. About 2.2 million acres of farmland are irrigated above it.

The aquifer reached its peak in the early 1950s, but has been steadily declining since. Spring discharges along the Snake River have declined by as much as 30 percent over the past 50 years.

The development of groundwater pumping, increased conservation by surface irrigation users and a prolonged drought have contributed to the decline.

“We’re rivaling some of the worst drought we’ve ever seen,” said Chuck Brendecke of Hydrosphere Resource Consultants. “It’s no surprise that things are tight.”

Brendecke told legislators that replenishing the aquifer will take a long-term commitment and several different approaches.

“People need to think of the aquifer as the largest reservoir in the system,” said Brendecke, a consultant for Idaho Ground Water Appropriators. “It needs to be operated as a reservoir because that’s what it is.”

Recharge alone won’t restore water to all the water rights holders in the region, he said.

He said Idaho needs to promote several different approaches to restoring the aquifer including:

There are several obstacles to aquifer recharge, including the cost. The Idaho Department of Water Resources has estimated that it would cost about $1.6 million a year to put 300,000 acre feet back into the aquifer.

Major costs would include water transportation charges and fees for leasing water from the state rental pool.

State water officials said some of the best recharge sites are located on lands controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. That could require the filing of federal environmental impact assessments or land exchanges.

“If large-scale managed recharge was easy, we’d already be doing it,” said David Blew, the IDWR’s aquifer recharge manager.

Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho.
State Eyes Aquifer Recharge
Capital Press, May 7, 2004

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