Bell Rapids Farmers Sell Waterby Dave Wilkins, Idaho Staff Writer
Capital Press, August 12(?), 2005
HAGERMAN, Idaho - Farmers on the Bell Rapids Irrigation project won't harvest sugar beets, potatoes or other thirsty row crops this year.
They've been limited to dryland grain and maybe a first cutting of hay if they're lucky.
It's the best that farmers on this high-desert plain could hope for after selling their water rights this spring.
In an unprecedented move, the state bought the project's high-lift water rights for $24.3 million, drying up nearly 25,000 acres of prime farmland.
For the project's shareholders, there's no turning back. The sale permanently removes the land from irrigated agriculture.
Mainline pipe will be dug up, cut into sections and sold for steel. Dozens of pumps will also be put up for sale, along with pivot systems.
Farmers will retain title to their land, but may no longer pump irrigation water from the Snake River. Some plan to convert to dryland livestock grazing or put in wind turbines.
"I think our long-range plans are probably going to be windmills, seeding some crested wheat grass, and cattle," said Bell Rapids Irrigation Co. president Greg Brown, who farms 3,500 acres with his brother.
"This will make a wonderful ranch," he said. "It's all privately owned, and we have domestic wells all over. It will make one heck of a cattle operation."
Instead of row crops, Brown planted 2,000 acres of dryland wheat this spring and lucked out with record rainfall. His hard red spring crop averaged about 50 bushels an acre in an area that, on average, gets only 3 to 5 inches of rain a year.
"Obviously, this was a fluke this year with the moisture," he said. "This is a desert. It's not a very good dryland area. I just don't think we can sustain ourselves with dryland wheat."
Bell Rapids shareholders weren't forced out of farming; they chose to sell their water rights after nearly a year of negotiations with the state.
The deal, which works out to about $1,250 per acre, will help satisfy terms of the landmark Nez Perce water agreement, providing additional Snake River water for salmon recovery.
The Bell Rapids project began delivering water in 1970 after the land was cleared of sagebrush and a canal system was built.
Sixteen large pumps of 1,500 horsepower each were used to lift water 600 feet to the fertile plain above the Snake River. Some 100 smaller pumps delivered pressurized water to each farm.
But power rate increases, low commodity prices and high input costs had made for much tighter operating margins in recent years.
Beans and barley cost about $120 to $150 an acre to irrigate, Brown said. Alfalfa cost about $160 per acre, and the price tag to water sugar beets had reached nearly $250 an acre.
"The thing that hurt worst was the downturn in the sugar price," Brown said.
For some on the project, changes were inevitable.
"We weren't going to be able to keep everyone going," he said. "Some of the guys up here were feeling some financial pressures."
Even with increased costs and low commodity prices, the high-lift pumping project remained an economically viable operation, Brown said.
Most shareholders were prepared to weather the downturn.
"You go through these cycles in farming," he said. "We were all just going to get through it, but then along came this buy-out opportunity. Those don't come down the road everyday, so you take advantage of it."
Brown was directly involved as a representative of the irrigation district. The talks also involved federal and state water agencies, the governor's office and the state attorney general's office.
"It was interesting," Brown said. "It was educational. It was kind of fun, but there was a lot of stress."
Initially, shareholders were divided, based primarily on age, which ranged from about 30 to 75.
The older shareholders were eager to sell and get out of farming, while several of the younger ones were opposed.
At 53, Brown leaned toward the younger viewpoint.
"I would have much rather held on for another 10 years and then sold," he said. "I think it would be worth a lot more."
In the end, enough shareholders favored selling that they swayed the others. The vote was unanimous.
Bell Rapids shareholders aren't the only ones who should be satisfied with the sale, Brown said.
"The state made a good buy," he said. "They got it pretty darn cheap."
DOWN TO THE WIRE
It was a deal that nearly didn't happen.
Negotiations dragged on through the winter and spring with shareholders not knowing whether they were going to farm or not.
Finally, about the first of April, Brown called state Rep. and House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, who had been involved in the process from the beginning.
"If this doesn't happen tonight, we're turning the pumps on tomorrow," Brown told Newcomb one afternoon.
It wasn't meant as a threat.
"Our backs were up against the wall," Brown said. "We had to either farm or not farm. We couldn't go on negotiating and talking about it for another 30 days."
Newcomb, a cattleman from Burley, understood the situation, Brown said.
"We always joked that if we could have sat down over coffee we could have had this thing hammered out in 20 minutes," Brown said.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will now lease from the state most of the water involved in the Bell Rapids deal. The water will be used to augment river flows for salmon and steelhead recovery.
The state water board will use the lease payments to pay back general fund appropriations used to buy out the Bell Rapids shareholders.
Everybody benefits from the purchase, Newcomb said in a statement earlier this summer when the sale finally closed.
"State taxpayers benefit because the federal government is contributing to the purchase of this water that will be used to meet federal policy objectives," he said.
"Irrigators will benefit because this purchase helps to reduce the demand for water from the upper Snake River in drought years," Newcomb said. "The environment will benefit because of additional flows through the mid-Snake."
Years from now Bell Rapids probably won't stand out as an isolated case in Idaho water history, Brown said.
"I think this is really a beginning," he said. "In the West, this water is going to be worth lots of money down the road."
Bell Rapids Water Deal a Ripoff for Taxpayers by Jon Marvel, Statesman Journal, 3/22/5
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs