Idaho to Exceed
by John O'Connell
Idaho water officials say their state will set a record by recharging more than 250,000 acre-feet of water this season,
with nearly half of the volume coming from recharge sites in the Upper Snake River Basin.
MENAN, Idaho -- Though the region's irrigation season hasn't started, heavy flows have been diverted from the Snake River into the Great Feeder Canal since early March.
In the Upper Snake River Plain, the Feeder, Fremont-Madison Irrigation District, Enterprise Irrigation District, Farmers Friend Irrigation District and the City of Blackfoot have opened their systems to help the state intentionally inject natural flows into the groundwater to replenish the declining aquifer, through a process known as managed recharge.
The state's upper valley recharge water right is only in priority during especially wet springs. In the lower valley, the state holds a recharge right that's active for at least 150 days, including all of winter.
The Idaho Department of Water Resources has recharged 220,000 acre-feet of water combined in the upper and lower Snake valleys since last October, breaking the prior recharge record of 160,000 acre-feet set in 2012. IDWR recharge coordinator Wes Hipke said the state is on pace to exceed a goal it set in 2015 to average at least 250,000 acre-feet of recharge per year, with the upper valley poised to contribute just shy of half of the volume.
"It's going to be a really good recharge year all the way around," Hipke said, "There is going to be a lot of natural recharge that goes on, which is going to benefit the aquifer, and then you add on top of that the stuff we're doing, and there's going to be even more benefit."
Hipke said the department will also likely exceed the $1.5 million it budgeted for this season to pay canal companies fees for facilitating recharge.
Four of the 21 canals that divert from the Feeder also have their headgates open to conduct recharge. Luke Hicks represents the Feeder system on the Committee of Nine, which provides guidance on behalf of the major federal irrigation projects in the Upper Snake. Hicks said the Feeder system has recharged 34,000 acre-feet already this season. He explained his canal deferred some of its maintenance until next year to prioritize recharge.
"We see water availability as the importance of this season," said Hicks, who chairs the Committee of Nine's recharge committee.
Hicks said his company has begun studying four potential sites for conducting off-canal recharge -- ranging from 10 to 50 cubic feet per second -- thereby allowing recharge to continue even after irrigation starts.
Hipke said the irrigation season is expected to start on about April 20, but he anticipates strong natural flows will support recharging in the upper valley's off-canal sites through June.
Jeff Raybould, an Idaho Water Resource Board member from St. Anthony, explained the Bureau of Land Management is conducting an environmental review to expand a critical Upper Valley off-canal recharge site on the Egin Bench, accessed by the Fremont-Madison system. Raybould said the project, once approved, will expand an existing recharge pond into surrounding BLM land, helping to increase recharge capacity on the bench from 800 acre-feet per day to 1,000 acre-feet per day.
Hipke said the Egin project is among five infrastructure upgrades the state hopes to implement this fall throughout the Snake to expand recharge capacity.
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