March 2017
Time for a Recharge By David Fairbourn, managing editor

Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer becomes a groundwater management area

On Nov. 2, 2016, Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman signed an order creating a groundwater management area (GWMA) for the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer (ESPA) region. He said more needs to be done to restore the aquifer.

“By designating a groundwater management area in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer region, we bring all of the water users into the fold — cities, water districts and others — who may be affecting aquifer levels through their consumptive use,” Spackman said to the Idaho Water Users Association.

“As we’ve continued to collect and analyze water data through the years, we don’t see recovery happening in the ESPA. We’re losing 200,000 acre-feet of water per year,” Spackman said. “At some point, we can’t deny the reality that we need to do more to stop the drop.”

Spackman said creating a GWMA will embrace the terms of a historic water settlement between the Surface Water Coalition and ground water users.

“I don’t think this order is contrary to the practices, goals and implementation of the settlement agreement or creates any new obligations for those water users,” he said.

But the GWMA will seek to bring other water users under management who have not joined a groundwater district, including some cities.

“All water users will be provided the opportunity to participate in the creation of a groundwater management plan with the goal of restoring the aquifer,” Spackman said.

The ESPA provides a federally designated “sole source” of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of southern Idaho residents, and a vital resource for farmers, ranchers and others who rely upon water for a living.

Like most potato producing regions in the Western United States, the Idaho industry relies on irrigation for profitable production. Potatoes have a relatively shallow root zone and a lower tolerance for water stress than most other crops grown in Idaho. Precise irrigation management is a necessity to obtain optimum yield and quality, and restricted water availability reduces production potential.

Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) officials held a series of 10 public meetings in communities overlying the ESPA or in tributary basins last summer to inform water users of continuing declines in aquifer levels and to discuss the possibility of IDWR designating a GWMA.

In these meetings, participants discussed how the boundaries for the GWMA should be allotted. Should they encompass ridge top to ridge top of the tributary basins, or should they define an area more proximate with the ESPA? And there were also concerns over whether this GWMA designation was a premature rush to judgment, before allowing the remedies specified in a private settlement between a coalition of surface water users and groundwater appropriators could truly take effect.

In 2015, The Surface Water Coalition (SWC) entered into a historic private settlement agreement where members of the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators (IGWA) agree to a series of voluntary practices intended to reverse declining ESPA water levels in exchange for safe harbor from curtailment under the SWC delivery call. Ongoing practices in the agreement include a 240,000 acre feet per year reduction of consumptive groundwater use, direct delivery of 50,000 acre feet of storage water to the SWC, and support of an annual state recharge goal of 250,000 acre feet.

The boundaries of the GWMA for the ESPA region extend from eastern Idaho, south of the Montana-Idaho border, across the Snake River Plain to the Thousand Springs region and west of Twin Falls, where waters from the ESPA discharge into the Snake River. Existing groundwater management areas or critical groundwater management areas that overlap the ESPA have been excluded from the ESPA Ground Water Management Area to avoid redundant administrative efforts, Spackman said.

Responding to the designation of ESPA as a GWMA, some growers are now faced with irrigating their potatoes with 15 percent less water. During the 2017 Idaho Potato Conference, presentations addressed this possibility, and also the current legal status of water rights on the ESPA. The key right now is to be patient with how the IDWR will be dovetailing the existing settlement agreement in with the management for the ESPA. The industry and all water users will need to give the IDWR director time to explain how the 2015 settlement agreement will be working in the GWMA plan.

IDWR officials expect it will take two to four years to develop a detailed groundwater management plan for the GWMA. The next step is to form an advisory committee of water users representing all interests within the GWMA, and this could take one to two years. Then the department will work with that group in developing the groundwater management plan, IDWR Deputy Director Mathew Weaver said.

Existing conjunctive management rules and delivery calls have not succeeded in stopping the aquifer decline, Weaver said.

“Mitigation plans often do not include practices and actions that result in increases in water quantity in the resource,” he said. “The creation of a groundwater management area is the first step in developing a groundwater management plan that will have stabilization and recovery of the aquifer as its primary objective.”

Concurrent with the designation of the GWMA, the Idaho Water Resource Board (IWRB) predicted that more than 100,000 acre-feet of water will be recharged into the ESPA during the winter of 2016-2017. Wesley Hipke, recharge project manager for the IDWR, gave an update on recharge activities planned for this winter, and a progress report on recharge infrastructure projects under construction and in development.

“Our target is to recharge 108,000 acre-feet of water if everything comes together,” Hipke said. “If things go well, we could beat that number.”

The IWRB began recharge flows in late October. The long-term goal is to recharge 250,000 acre-feet of water into the ESPA to help restore aquifer levels. The Milepost 31 recharge project operated by the American Falls Reservoir District #2 near Shoshone, Idaho, will be the workhorse this year. The canal company ramped up recharging to 400- 500 cfs in December. The Twin Falls Canal Co., North Side Canal Co. and the Southwest Irrigation District are also major participants in conducting recharge for the IWRB this winter.

IWRB was created by the Idaho Legislature in 1965, following the passage of a constitutional amendment which established the board. There are eight members of the IWRB, appointed by the governor, who serve four-year terms.

IWRB is responsible for the formulation and implementation of a state water plan, financing of water projects, and the operation of programs that support sustainable management of Idaho’s water resources.

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