State Eyes Water Right Purchaseby Dave Wilkins, Idaho Staff Writer
Capital Press, October 5, 2004
A state plan to settle water rights disputes in Southern Idaho includes a provision that could dry up thousands of acres of irrigated farmland in the region.
Under the proposal, the state would offer to buy 200,000 to 260,000 acre feet of water rights in stages over the next five years. That would be enough to retire nearly 100,000 acres from agricultural production.
The proposal, offered by the state Attorney General’s office, the Idaho Department of Water Resources and an interim legislative committee, is part of a broad effort to avert court action in the region’s ongoing battle between groundwater, surface water and spring water users.
The main goal is to provide relief to senior water rights holders who aren’t getting all the water to which they’re entitled and to replenish the dwindling Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.
The state wouldn’t force anyone to sell their water rights; all the purchases would have to come from willing sellers.
Farmers who use high-lift pumps to irrigate crops hundreds of feet above the aquifer or Snake River are expected to be among those giving the offer serious consideration.
Soaring power costs have made farming with high-lift irrigation pumps an expensive venture.
“Many of those high-lift pumpers are really struggling,” said Hazelton area farmer Lynn Carlquist, vice chairman of the North Snake Ground Water District. “They just can’t make it work economically.”
The proposal has led to real estate speculation in some areas like Bell Rapids, a high desert plateau on the south side of the Snake River.
“A year ago you could go up to Bell Rapids and buy ground for $300 to $400 an acre,” Carlquist said. “It’s double that now.”
The proposal could also include the state purchase of water rights from some spring water users, which include fish farms along the Snake River canyon.
Much of the proposal would be paid for with state revenue bonds purchased by junior water rights holders. But the costs would also be spread out to include contributions from everyone who benefits, including municipalities, spring users and domestic water users.
The settlement proposal seeks a net gain in the aquifer of 600,000 to 900,000 acre feet annually through a combination of water rights purchases, conservation measures and reductions in demand.
Specific components of the plan include converting more irrigated farmground from groundwater use to surface water use, implementing a managed aquifer recharge program and retiring some irrigated farmground through federal farm programs such as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.
The Idaho Legislature would have to sign off on the entire proposal, which officials have estimated could cost $80 to $100 million over the next 30 years.
Without a settlement between junior and senior water rights holders in the region, both sides are expected to head to court sometime next year.
Earlier this year, 1,300 farmers in south-central Idaho received notice from the state that their groundwater pumps would be shut off. The state order was the result of a “water call,” made by a trout farm with senior spring water rights.
Curtailment of the pumps was averted with a compromise between spring users, groundwater users and the state. All water calls and other litigation were put on hold for one year to explore alternatives to curtailment.
Curtailment of the pumps would dry up 113,000 acres of farmland, costing the state economy about $750 million, groundwater pumpers estimate.
Five years of drought have made Idaho’s water problems a lot worse than they would be otherwise, Carlquist said. The state desperately needs a heavy snowpack this winter.
“If we don’t get more water there’s not much chance of a happy resolution,” Carlquist said. “If we’d been having average water years or even near-average years, we wouldn’t be talking about this now.”
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