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Irrigation Picture Looks Good,
Groundwater Lags Behind

by Michelle Dunlop
TImes-News, March 23, 2006

Recharge opportunity seems slim this year

BOISE -- Don't be fooled by all the wet stuff outside.

The mountains may be cloaked in snow, the reservoirs slowly filling with water, but, the picture below the surface remains far from rosy.

At least, that was the message Karl Dreher, director of the Department of Water Resources, conveyed to a House committee this week.

"Even though it's a good water year compared to the last six, it's not the banner year that some of the rhetoric would lead you to believe," Dreher told the House Resources and Conservation Committee. "We're just somewhat above average."

Six years of drought have led to calls for water and lawsuits levied by the various holders of water rights. While the outlook for this irrigation season looks good for the moment, the reason for the dispute between water users remains: a depleted Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer.

In some places along the aquifer, groundwater levels have dropped 30 to 60 feet in the last six years, Dreher said. And, one good water year isn't going to make the difference.

This session, House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, introduced a controversial aquifer recharge bill. If Newcomb's legislation passes, some of the water that normally flows downstream through the hydroelectric dams would be diverted and used to replenish the aquifer. Idaho Power Company and surface water users oppose the bill, saying it sets a bad precedent of the state meddling with water rights.

The legislation passed the House with a vote of 43-22 last week. On Tuesday, Newcomb added an emergency clause to his recharge bill making it effective right away if the bill becomes law.

Yet, the measure is still too little, too late for much recharge to occur this year, said Mike Beus, operations manager for the Bureau of Reclamation in Burley.

"The amount wouldn't be a measurable," he said.

Beus, like Dreher, doesn't view this water year as much of a solution to six years of drought. Instead, Beus said, people have lost sight of what normal spring flows are.

"This isn't likely to be known as a wet year," Beus said.

Ron Abramovich, a water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a little more optimistic about Magic Valley's water picture.

"It's the best year since 1999," Abramovich said.

Snowpack levels across most of the state are above average, Abramovich said. Levels in northern Idaho aren't as high as in the southern portion of the state, he said. Overall, snowpack levels are nearly double last year's levels at this time.

However, "we don't know how it's going to come off," he said.

If the weather warms up quickly or the area receives heavy spring rains like last year, the snowpack melts quickly and doesn't seep in and replenish the aquifer as much as if it melted slowly, Abramovich said. To recover, the aquifer needs a number of years of wet weather.

"Hopefully, the wet trend that began last May will continue for several years," he said.

Michelle Dunlop covers the Legislature and natural resources for The Times-News
Irrigation Picture Looks Good, Groundwater Lags Behind
TImes-News, March 23, 2006

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