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Dam Agency Won't Rush to Aquifer's Aid

by Gregory Hahn
Idaho Statesman - May 7, 2004

Salmon and surface water rights come first

Some Snake River water stored behind federal dams could help recharge southern Idaho's dwindling aquifer, but only after the Bureau of Reclamation meets its obligations to endangered salmon and the surface-water irrigators with contracts with the federal agency.

Reclamation Commissioner John Keys told Idaho lawmakers that any move to use federal water to bail out 1,300 groundwater pumpers could not "jump in front" of the 427,000 acre-feet of water used to help flush baby salmon to the Pacific Ocean.

And in truth, Keys said, there may not be much left over.

"I don't know if we can take a lot of water from the system and recharge with it," he said.

A day after Idaho Power Co. executives announced they wouldn't offer any of their substantial water rights to help out either, Keys' revelation to a special committee of legislators came as another blow to any hope that the state could simply refill the depleting aquifer and move on with water business as usual.

"We're going to have to look at other things as a state," said Del Raybould, the legislative committee's co-chairman.

That could mean drying up acres, stopping new developments and finding ways to conserve.

An Idaho problem that needs an Idaho solution

Keys said his agency and others don't have federal reserve water rights in Idaho they filed for state rights along with everybody else. And though the bureau is willing to work on ways to help, Keys said Idaho lawmakers shouldn't look at the federal agencies to solve the problem.

"We feel that the state of Idaho needs to take the lead," he said.

When Oakley GOP Rep. Scott Bedke asked him to elaborate, Keys was simple and direct:

"The state of Idaho issued the water permits that caused the problem in the first place," he said.

For decades, farmers, businesses and new developments have tapped the Snake River Plain Aquifer for their crops, domestic and industry use and landscaping needs. The water rights came easy and often, because the 10,000-square-mile underground reservoir seemed so flush.

But as irrigation techniques improved, and pivot sprinklers replaced flood irrigation (which had added to the aquifer), the water level started to drop, and experts realized the aquifer had been falsely inflated by the liberal use of surface water in Idaho's early years. The first warnings came in the 1970s, but the state did little to deal with the inevitable clash between the folks who pumped the groundwater and the industries and individuals who diverted surface water from the Snake and other rivers.

The real rub: almost all of the surface water users including Idaho Power Co. and Reclamation have older water rights, and under Idaho law, they could dry up anyone who came in after them if there wasn't enough water for everyone.

And with recharging the aquifer looking like just part of a much broader solution, Idaho's conservation groups are hoping the crisis brings some real change to the way everyone in the state looks at water use.

"We've got to take straws out of the soda cup," said Idaho Rivers United Director Bill Sedivy. "I think we've got to start now."

And he doesn't mean just farmers.

"We've got to start it right here in Boise, and nobody's talking about it," he said. "It makes me angry."

And that Idaho solution may mean more tax dollars

In the midst of this election year, the Legislature has devoted nearly all of its interim energy toward finding a way to salvage a solution that could keep the politically and economically powerful ground-water pumpers in business.

The special committee has expanded its task to evaluate the water situation in the entire state, but it's keeping a sharp focus on the Snake River problem.

One possible aid would be to raise the level of the Minidoka Dam on the Snake River near Burley and Rupert. But just the study of that possibility would take about five years, Reclamation Regional Director William McDonald said. The cost? More than $100 million.

"At an absolute minimum," he said. "Probably substantially in excess of that."

As with everything that the federal agencies do, the Endangered Species and National Environmental Protection acts need to be followed, Keys said. That's always frustrating to Idaho legislators more of those feelings were brought up Thursday.

Rupert Rep. Bert Stevenson told Keys that if Idaho water laws were the driving force, the federal laws wouldn't hamstring so many decisions.

Still, the state's leaders are interested in the 55,000 acre-feet of water the increase at Minidoka could provide, even if taxpayers end up footing some or most of the bill.

The legislative budget committee co-chairs are following the issue, and Sen. Dean Cameron said the state should look into pushing the Minidoka concept.

The state spent about $2 million this year to head off the crisis, and lawmakers are all but certain to spend more on this in January, if not sooner.

But with the 1-cent sales tax increase set to expire in June 2005, the state may not have the leeway to make a big commitment however powerful or vital to the rural economy the water interests are.

Stevenson said he has one concern from attending meetings with the folks on either side of the issue.

"People expect that the state will step up with the money to solve all their problems," he said.

Gregory Hahn
Dam Agency won't Rush to Aquifer's Aid
Idaho Statesman, May 7, 2004

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