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For the week of July 26 through August 1, 2000

South county farmers confront drought

Express Staff Writer

Under a hot sun and wide blue sky without a hint of rain, rancher Rob Struthers stood in a bone dry canal bed in the Bellevue Triangle, the heart of Blaine County ag land.

South county hay grower Rob Struthers stands in dry creek bed in the Bellevue Triangle. "This canal should be brim full and runnin’ fast," he said. Express photo by Kevin Wiser

"This canal should be brim full and runnin’ fast," Struthers said.

Rainfall this spring and summer has been devastatingly low.

The Wood River Valley hasn’t seen a good soaking since May.

In June, a mere .01 inches of rain fell.

Until last week’s brief cloud bursts, no rain had fallen in July.

In the midst of harvesting a second cut of hay, Struthers contemplates the prospects of reaping a third.

"If I want to get a third cut I’ll have to turn on the well which will cost me," Struthers said. "I have to weigh the benefits of getting a third cut opposed to using the power."

Struthers said he hasn’t had to depend on his well to raise a crop since the early 1980’s.

"Dry is dry. It’s dry everywhere," Struthers said. "That’s why we drilled the well, for years like this."

For farmers who don’t have wells and rely solely on the river for irrigation, the summer may prove to be a long and hot one.

Last week, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne declared a drought emergency for Blaine County to provide some relief for south county farmers.

The declaration allows the Idaho Department of Water Resources to make temporary changes in the point of diversion for existing water rights on the Big Wood River.

"This declaration will give irrigators along the Big Wood River the ability to find replacement water and allow the IDWR to work with local officials to minimize the impact of the drought on irrigators," Kempthorne said.

Otis Disbennett has been a deputy water master on the Big Wood River for 22 years. His job is to monitor water levels on the river and cut-off water rights as the river drops.

Water rights on the Big Wood date back to 1880. The earlier the year of the water right the longer a farmer can irrigate into the summer.

Disbennett said 1884 water rights, considered to be good rights, are usually cut off in mid-August. Already this year, nearly half of the 700 or so water rights on the Big Wood have been shut down, he said.

"All 1884 water rights have been cut-off. I know for damn sure I’ll be cutting into 1883’s by next week," Disbennett said. "It’s a bad year. I’ve been water master since 1978 and have never cut this deep this early in the year."

Disbennett said flows on the Big Wood River registered at 240 cubic feet per second (cfs) last week. Average flows for this time of year are over twice that. Last year, near the end of July, the river registered at 770 cfs, Disbennett said.

The 73-year-old Disbennett, who said he was raised on the river, traces the root of the problem to development along the Big Wood River and its draining impact on the underground aquifer.

"The problem is they’ve riprapped this whole damn river from Ketchum to Hailey," Disbennett said. "People have built on the river and channeled and straightened it so it goes like a shotgun down through here and can’t spread out and go back into the aquifer," Disbennett said.

Disbennett said when he drilled his well in the 1950’s the aquifer was about eight feet below the surface.

"Every year it keeps dropping. Now my well water is 27 feet down," Disbennett said. "When the river and aquifer get low, that’s when you’re in trouble and that’s where we are now."

The drought emergency declaration allows for the transfer of water rights which can make or break a harvest.

"If this guy over here’s got water he isn’t using and this gal over here has run out, they can go through the IDWR and transfer water," Disbennett said.

When water gets scarce a five or 10 day transfer can provide a farmer with enough irrigation to raise a crop to harvest rather than sit and watch it die in the fields.

"Farmers that don’t have ground water rights (wells) are going to have a tough time, rancher Struthers said. "When surface water gets this low, a transfer can mean saving a crop and surviving another week or two."


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