Friday, December 6, 2013

Beware the coming water shell game


    Water. It’s the lifeblood of the Wood River Valley. From its headwaters near Galena to its confluence with the Malad, the Big Wood River provides drinking water, irrigation, habitat for fish and wildlife, recreation and beauty for everyone in the valley.
    A healthy Big Wood depends on ebbs and flows to maintain proper temperatures, habitat and water quality. Perhaps no flow being more important than the spring freshet, when melting winter snows scour packed sediment and disperse it downstream creating spawning habitat, and temporarily fill floodplains resulting in recharge to the groundwater below. Conversely, extended periods of low flow are hard on the river and can literally leave fish high and dry.
    In times of shortage, water law allocates the Big Wood’s water on a seniority system. Additionally, surface water (river) rights have traditionally been managed in a way that ground water (well) rights have not. But that is changing. Conjunctive management of water, meaning managing surface and ground water rights together, is coming to the Wood River Valley soon.   

A healthy Big Wood is the backbone of the valley.

    Conjunctive management is going to be a good, though difficult, thing. It results in a more accurate reflection of water use and availability than surface water management alone. Especially in the face of climate change, this allows better preparation for our water-use future. At the same time, conjunctive management will be a challenging transition, as junior water-right holders, most of whom are ground water pumpers, are likely to lose their right to use water in the way they are accustomed.
    While it’s hard to accept, there are no magic fixes to this situation. The truth is, by historically not managing our surface and ground water uses together, we are used to using more water than is sustainable. Currently, a private company is proposing what may sound like a magic fix. The idea is to divert much of the Big Wood’s spring freshet, as well as post-irrigation season flows, out of the river and then dump that water on the ground in areas north of Hailey and in the Bellevue Triangle, in hopes that it refills the aquifer. The company then proposes to try and quantify the amount of recharged water, convert that amount into mitigation credits, and sell those credits to upstream groundwater users so that they can continue to pump. Magically, more water appears. Or does it?  
    Supposedly, recharging the aquifer in the lower valley somehow equates more water availability in the upper valley. In reality, taking more water out of the river harms the river and does nothing to address excessive water use. Any mitigation credits created in this proposal will only paper over the problem of overuse, not actually fix it. It’s just a shell game.   
    Aside from the company proposing to do this, it’s unclear who benefits from it. It’s certainly not the river or the fish that call it home. Nor is it the residents and businesses that appreciate the river’s many recreational and aesthetic benefits. Nor is it the junior water users who will be forced to pay untold amounts for the credits. Instead, this proposal attempts to perpetuate an increasingly tenuous water use situation and provides false hope that our water use status quo will be around forever.  
    The real solution here is for the community to come together and work through it. This is an opportunity to explore greater efficiencies in water use, and to decide if municipalities or other organizations are better suited to speak the Wood River Valley’s water needs than a private company driven by profit.  
    A healthy Big Wood is the backbone of the valley. Now is the time to protect it.

    Marie Callaway Kellner is the Idaho Conservation League’s water associate.

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