By TONY EVANS and GREG MOORE
For the Express
More than 20 individuals and groups, including the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Western Watersheds Project and the Idaho Conservation League, have filed protests against a plan to use unclaimed water in the Big Wood River to recharge the local aquifer and sell that water to irrigators during the summer.
In February 2012, Innovative Mitigation Solutions, a Boise-based company founded by former Idaho Department of Water Resources Director David Tuthill, filed an application with Tuthill’s former department for a water right to divert 154 cubic feet per second from the Big Wood River year-round. At the time of filing, the firm was called Wood River Mitigation Solutions.
The application has been stayed until Sept. 1, 2013, to give the company time to address the protestors’ concerns.
In March, the Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey made a presentation at Wood River High School in Hailey to mark the launch of a groundwater flow model of the Big Wood basin. The flow model, scheduled for completion in 2015, is the first step toward restricting groundwater pumping from wells in the Wood River Valley to honor senior water rights of downstream irrigators as part of conjunctive management of groundwater and surface water.
Tuthill said he anticipates “hundreds” of wells in the Wood River Valley having to be shut off at some point during the irrigation season once conjunctive management goes into effect.
If granted, the new water right would be superceded by more senior rights, but Tuthill said in an interview that depending on each year’s snowpack, there is water available as late as July. He said he made the application after noticing that a substantial amount of water from the Big Wood River goes unused.
“Last year, a lot of water went undiverted from the Big Wood River all the way down to the Snake River and beyond,” he said.
He said Idaho loses about 95 million acre-feet of water annually.
Innovative Mitigation Solutions would recharge the aquifer underlying the Wood River Valley by diverting water into the Hiawatha Canal north of Hailey, as well as into at least one other yet-to-be-determined canal, and letting it soak into the ground. The recharged water could then be used by down-valley well-pumpers to offset “calls” by senior water rights holders farther downstream.
“While much of the time all of the water is appropriated from the Big Wood River, there are other times when it is not,” Tuthill said. “If we can save the water from those times when it is not, it could be of benefit to all.”
But Idaho Conservation League Water Associate Marie Kellner said her organization does not consider water left in the river to be wasted. She said leaving water during times of low flows keeps the temperature cooler and flushes sediment downstream, both of which improve fish habitat.
Kellner said winter flows sometimes do not exceed 154 cfs, so executing the water right applied for at those times would dry the river entirely.
“This [application] could have completely detrimental effects on the animals and plants that depend on the water,” she said.
The Big Wood is one of three rivers in Idaho with a minimum instream flow right held by the state (the others are the Snake and the Lemhi). So once the water level drops to 60 cfs, no more can be legally diverted.
“But the reality of the situation is that it’s a very difficult thing to enforce,” Kellner said.
She said the ICL also objects to “privatizing and monetizing a public resource in a way that hasn’t been done in Idaho.”
“The ICL sees this as the first of many proposals,” she said. “Who knows how many projects they would do around the state?”
Kellner said many streams in Idaho already dry up during irrigation season, and if Innovative Mitigation Solutions’ concept becomes widely used, that situation would be exacerbated.
Tuthill said his company plans similar projects for “several” other aquifers in the state, though he declined to specify them.
He acknowledged that a means of determining the amount of payment from each of his potential customers is yet to be worked out.
Tuthill said his firm has had two meetings with the protestors and will have more this summer.
“We anticipate developing solutions to their concerns,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we anticipate the withdrawal of all the protests, but we do anticipate making a very strong showing in September.”