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Irrigators Await Aquifer Hearing

by Dave Wilkins, Staff Writer
Capital Press, January 13, 2006

TWIN FALLS, Idaho - The water outlook for Southern Idaho is much better than a year ago, but irrigators who depend on the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer still have some long-term worries.

Snow and rain is helping, but it won't restore the aquifer this year or anytime soon, experts told Twin Falls Canal Co. shareholders this week.

The massive aquifer is the source for most drinking water and irrigation wells in the area north of the Snake River. It's also the source of some major springs that supply the river - and some canal companies - with natural flows.

Years of groundwater pumping have depleted the aquifer and it will take many more years for it to recover, hydrologists said.

Irrigators on the Twin Falls tract are highly dependent on the natural flow of the river, especially in July and August. They have little choice but to continue their legal battle to restore their full water right, officials said.

"We have to protect the source of that water right," John Simpson, an attorney representing surface water users, told Twin Falls shareholders.

"We can't allow this resource to continue to decline," he said. "If we do, people 10 or 15 years from now are going to say, why didn't they do more?"

The Twin Falls Canal Co. joined a coalition of seven canal companies representing mostly senior surface water users in filing a water delivery call with the state a year ago. That action called on the Idaho Department of Water Resources to take administrative action against junior groundwater pumpers.

Curtailment of some groundwater pumping rights is a possibility, but it hasn't happened yet. Neither has any water been distributed to surface water coalition members as remediation. The contested case is set for a hearing on March 6.

Simpson said a resolution to the dispute isn't likely before the start of the new irrigation season.

"The likelihood is that the (IDWR) order in place for 2005 will be the order in place for 2006," he said.

Twin Falls Canal Co. has a natural flow right on the Snake River dating back to 1900, decades before most of the groundwater pumps now in place began tapping the aquifer.

"It's an excellent water right," said TFCC general manager Vince Alberdi. "We have to defend it to the wall. The outcome of this call is very important."

Average daily diversions to the the Twin Falls tract from the natural flow of the Snake River have been cut in half since the early 1930s and they continue to decline, officials said.

By some estimates, groundwater pumping on the ESPA reduces spring flows along the American Falls reach of the river by more than 1 million acre feet per year.

"This aquifer is your bank account, and we have some people who are sucking out of your bank account," Chuck Brockway, a consultant to the surface water coalition, told Twin Falls shareholders.

Groundwater pumpers fear a state-ordered curtailment would put them out of business and deal a blow to the entire Southern Idaho agricultural economy.

But Simpson said surface water managers have never sought to shut down all the irrigation wells on the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.

"What they want is a reasonable management of the resource," Simpson said.

Dave Wilkins, Staff Writer
Irrigators Await Aquifer Hearing
Capital Press, January 13, 2006

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