Water could be shut off to some eastern Idaho irrigators

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Posted at 2:47 PM, Jun 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-13 16:47:28-04

BOISE, Idaho — The director of the state Department of Water Resources on Thursday exercised new authority given to him by lawmakers earlier this year by issuing an order potentially cutting off water to some groundwater pumpers.

Gary Spackman issued the order that involves some 85 pumpers who are not in compliance with an agreement intended to prevent declines in a giant Idaho aquifer.

The 2015 agreement is intended to stabilize the level of the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer so that surface users and groundwater pumpers have a reliable source of water.

But some groundwater pumpers are ignoring the agreement, causing others to also consider abandoning the deal.

The legislation approved earlier this year gives the state authority to bring those recalcitrant groundwater pumpers in line with the threat of cutting off their water.

The state's existing water law says "first in time is first in right," meaning water-rights holders with older rights have priority to water when there's not enough for everybody. The surface water users have water rights dating to the 1880s, predating groundwater pumpers with rights from the 1950s.

When the aquifer level drops because of groundwater pumpers, springs used by surface water users dry up. That means senior water rights holders aren't getting their fair share of water, requiring the state to step in and shut down groundwater pumpers, including cities that pump water for residents.

The new law gives the state additional authority to cut off water to those groundwater pumpers ignoring the agreement, including those with older rights than groundwater pumpers honoring the agreement.

"Although ground water levels have partially recovered due to state-sponsored recharge, ground water pumping reductions, and ample water years, aquifer water levels have not yet recovered to levels necessary to avoid conjunctive management," the Idaho Department of Water Resources said in a news release.

The agency is predicting a nearly 16,000 acre-foot shortfall. An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre (.4 hectares) with a foot (.3 meters) of water. An acre-foot contains about 326,000 gallons (1.2 million liters).

The legislation giving the director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources authority to cut off groundwater pumpers ignoring the agreement was signed into law by Republican Gov. Brad Little in April after it passed the Senate 33-1 and the House 67-0.