By DAVID R. TUTHILL, JR.
My family and I have enjoyed visiting the Wood River Valley since 1976. Like many residents, we fell in love with the friendly people, open vistas, Big Wood River, Hyndman Peak and Pioneer Cabin.
Often the valley has seemed serene and peaceful. But currently the valley is facing a major change in how water is managed and delivered. While this change may not impact all residents, it will affect hundreds of well owners including subdivisions, municipalities, businesses and irrigators. In the future, a late-summer drive up the valley may look quite different as some landscapes now irrigated from wells may turn from green and lush to brown and harsh.
The reason for this change is rooted in the Idaho Constitution, which provides that “Priority of appropriation shall give the better right as between those using the water,” or stated another way, “first in time is first in right.” Surface water (stream and river) users in the valley have lived with this rule of law for more than a hundred years. A water user who has an 1888 water right from the Big Wood River knows their right will be curtailed by the watermaster every summer, generally in August, and often for additional months, while a neighboring user with an 1880 right is able to irrigate throughout the summer.
In Idaho, this “first in time” principle, called the “prior appropriation doctrine,” also applies to ground water—water pumped from a well. Historically, most wells in the valley have not been under the jurisdiction of the watermaster because the water rights had not been decreed. But now the Snake River Basin Adjudication is nearly complete and the court has issued an Order of Interim Administration—allowing the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) to move forward with conjunctive administration, meaning that in the near future ground water and surface water will be administered as one.
Based on present state policies, the small domestic wells—those that provide less than or equal to a half-acre of irrigation—will not be administered by the watermaster. But those providing irrigation for larger parcels and other consumptive uses will be subject to curtailment (ordered to stop pumping) just like the 1888 surface water right. The start time for conjunctive administration and curtailment of wells is still uncertain, but IDWR recently indicated they anticipate regulation will begin in 2014 or 2015.
Knowing change is coming, consultants are assisting property owners with lining up alternatives that will allow them to continue irrigating their land and operating their businesses once conjunctive administration enforcement notices are distributed by IDWR. In addition, some valley leaders are initiating efforts to create a ground water district. While such a district could be helpful, experience has shown that it can be difficult for these districts to provide the wide variety of options needed for a diverse group of water users such as those in the Wood River Valley. Nevertheless, we support and applaud this effort.
This summer and fall, IDWR will be conducting a series of meetings and hearings prior to implementing regulation of water delivery from wells. In addition to these state-sponsored meetings, we encourage the local community to become more educated on this issue through participation in the upcoming public process. As Sandra Hofferber describes in her new book “A Pictorial Early History of the Wood River Valley,” this stunningly beautiful valley has often been subject to boom and bust cycles since the 1880s. Additional public discourse and involvement will help guide and preserve the valley’s beauty and economy through this looming change in water management.
David R. Tuthill is the founder of Idaho Water Engineering and manager of Innovative Mitigation Solutions. He was formerly the director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources.