Friday, August 19, 2011

Users protest illegal irrigators

State: Crackdown not the focus of measurement district

Express Staff Writer

Peppin Corso-Harris, left, said during a public hearing on Tuesday that illegal domestic water use could result in farmers in the south valley being forced to turn off their water. Valley resident Jim Zarubica asked whether subdivisions with common wells would be exempted from measurement under the domestic exclusion if the new measurement district was formed. Photo by David N. Seelig

More than 70 people packed a classroom at the Wood River Middle School in Hailey on Tuesday evening, eager to ask questions and possibly protest the state's plan to begin measuring groundwater use in the Big Wood and Little Wood river basins.

The Idaho Department of Water Resources has proposed creating a water measurement district stretching from north of Ketchum to areas south of Fairfield. The easternmost boundary would include Picabo but not nearby Carey in the district.

No water regulation has been suggested yet, and the hydrographer in charge of overseeing measurement would not have the authority to curtail water use.

Tim Luke, water compliance bureau chief for the department, said the measurement district has been requested by surface water users such as the Big Wood Canal Company, which is clamoring to have groundwater users included in the water district.

"They have been asking for regulation of groundwater rights since the late 80s or early 90s," Luke said during Tuesday's public hearing. "We're just trying to get geared up for a potential water district."

If approved, the water measurement district would be the only existing measurement district in Idaho. Three have been created since the legislation allowing these districts passed in 1995, but all have since been turned into standard water districts. Luke said this measurement district would eventually follow that same course.

If both groundwater and surface water are regulated together, known as comjunctive administration, this would protect users with senior surface water rights from having their use limited while junior groundwater users remain uncurtailed.

"If we were a little bit further along in the adjudication process, we'd just create a water district," Luke said.

The district would include 800 groundwater rights and 750 wells. Users in the district would be assessed a fee of $25 per well, with an additional charge of $7.23 per cubic feet per second that flows through the well, to pay for a seasonal hydrographer.

Luke said that most water users in other districts pay less than $100 per year. Required flow meters and installation can range from $1,800 to $2,500 total.


B Bar B ranch owner Katie Breckenridge said she installed a system a few years ago on her ranch. Because of the number of wells on her property, she said installation cost her more than $10,000—but she believes it was well worth it.

"Our wells are going to be measured by somebody, sometime," she said. "We have to figure out a way to make this happen. I hope people with a lot of knowledge will get behind this, because we have to make this work."

Most public comment focused on curtailing illegal uses. A department crackdown several years ago resulted in the filing of more than 200 violations against people who were irrigating well beyond their water rights.

Single-family homes irrigating less than one half of an acre would be exempt from measurement under the new district, but those with current water rights protested this exclusion.

"We'll have to turn off our pumps and lose our crops because of illegal use upstream," said Peppin Corso-Harris, water user in irrigation District 45. "There is a lot of illegal use going on. Domestic use has skyrocketed, and that's not being measured."

Though a hydrographer would not have the right to curtail use, Allan Merritt, Southern Region manager of the Department of Water Resources, said the department makes a point of investigating reported illegal uses.

"If we have a written complaint, we will investigate," he said. "We'll look into it as best we can."

Domestic users irrigating more than one half acre would need to either stop their use or purchase a water right. There is currently a moratorium on new water rights in the state, meaning prospective buyers would need to seek out a current water rights holder who was willing to transfer the right to them.

Still, Luke said the main reason for creating the district is not to catch illegal users.

"Illegal use is just one factor in the creation of a district," he said. "The primary reason is because senior surface water rights owners want this."

If approved, the water measurement district would require irrigators with diversions greater than five acres to install measurement systems by the 2013 irrigation season. Currently, water users can still comment on the proposal until Aug. 26, when the department will start to look at all public testimony. The order for the district's creation could be approved by mid-September, Luke said, and a hydrographer could be in place by early November.

Users can submit written public comment to the following address: Interim Director, Idaho Department of Water Resources, P.O. Box 83720, Boise, Idaho, 83720-0098.

Katherine Wutz:

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