South county farmers confront drought
By KEVIN WISER
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.
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,"
Rainfall this spring and summer has been devastatingly low.
The Wood River Valley hasnt seen a good soaking since May.
In June, a mere .01 inches of rain fell.
Until last weeks 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 Ill 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 hasnt had to depend on his well to raise a crop
since the early 1980s.
"Dry is dry. Its dry everywhere," Struthers said.
"Thats why we drilled the well, for years like this."
For farmers who dont 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
"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
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
Ill be cutting into 1883s by next week," Disbennett said. "Its
a bad year. Ive 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 theyve 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 cant
spread out and go back into the aquifer," Disbennett said.
Disbennett said when he drilled his well in the 1950s 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, thats when
youre in trouble and thats 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 heres got water he isnt using and this
gal over here has run out, they can go through the IDWR and transfer water,"
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
"Farmers that dont 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."