Early this summer, plumber Tom Powell got a call from a neighbor in East Fork asking him to install a filter on his water system. The neighbor told him that after he had drained water out of his bathtub, half an inch of silt remained on the bottom of the tub. Not long after, Powell’s own well water started to turn brown. When other neighbors reported discolored water and low pressure, it became obvious that the area’s wells were running dry.
“The water table is dropping out from under a lot of the wells out there,” said Ray Freeman, owner of Wood River Drilling & Pump. “The water table is going down drastically.”
Local well drillers say that even though the central part of the Wood River Valley seems hardest hit, they’ve heard complaints about a dwindling water supply from homeowners throughout the valley. The homes reporting problems are generally older ones.
“There wasn’t as much water being pumped out of the ground then, so the water table was higher, and consequently the wells weren’t drilled as deep,” Freeman said.
Lucy Chubb, the owner of a 1980s-era house in the Willoway subdivision of East Fork, said she’s having her well deepened from 114 feet to 220 feet, at a cost of about $7,000. She said that due to low pressure, her lawn sprinklers had stopped working, and she’s conserving as much water as she can for domestic use.
Mark Koffer, manager of sales and service for Walker Water Systems, said his firm is drilling deeper wells even for owners of riverside lots in Golden Eagle subdivision, across the highway from East Fork, where wells of 35 feet are no longer pulling up water.
“We’re probably going to be drilling to 60 feet,” he said.
The lower water table this summer follows two winters of low snowfall. According to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, precipitation in the Big Wood Basin so far this year is 81 percent of normal, and was only 72 percent of normal last winter at the Hyndman SNOTEL site, at the head of the East Fork. Snowpack was particularly sparse below 7,500 feet elevation, leaving little water to percolate into the ground.
“The water table is going down drastically.”
Wood River Drilling & Pump
Jim Bartolino, Idaho groundwater specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey, said he wasn’t surprised to hear about the lower water table in East Fork. He said a map of groundwater changes between 2006 and 2012 throughout the Big Wood Basin, contained in a recently released USGS report, showed the most declines in wells in tributary watersheds. He said groundwater in those places is closer to the surface and more susceptible to changes in precipitation.
“All the water is coming from precipitation that falls in that watershed,” he said. “In a dry year, the wells in these tributaries are going to get hammered.”
But many people also place blame on continued development. Powell said that when he moved into his house in East Fork in 1976, the valley was almost entirely covered by sagebrush. Now a lot more of the area has lawns and trees.
“It’s mostly Mother Nature, but we’re messing with Mother Nature, pulling more water out of the aquifer than there is to give,” he said.
Bartolino said a groundwater flow model being created by the USGS and Idaho Department of Water Resources will help determine the relative effects of natural cycles and of groundwater pumping. The study is scheduled for completion by the end of 2015.
“Some people feel that we’ve overdeveloped the tributaries, but it’s hard to say what overdevelopment is,” he said. “In a normal year, the number of wells may be right, but in a dry year, they might run out of water.”
County code requires the developers of subdivisions of five lots or more to show that there is adequate water available for domestic use and fire protection. However, the county planning director, Tom Bergin, said he does not know of any subdivision that has been denied due to insufficient water.
Under Idaho law, homeowners are allowed to irrigate up to half an acre without a water right. Powell said it appears that many property owners in the East Fork valley are violating that limit.
The Department of Water Resources is in the process of investigating residential water use throughout the Wood River Valley. Water Compliance Bureau Chief Tim Luke said the investigation, a renewal of a similar effort in 2008 and 2009, uses satellite imagery to identify irrigated parcels, and is focusing first on the larger ones. He said the department sent out about six noncompliance notices this summer.
“It’s a very time-consuming process,” he said. “But as we keep doing this, more letters are going to be going out. We’re chipping away at it.”
Luke said the department has identified apparent violators who have no water right and others who are irrigating in excess of their right.
Even homeowners who are irrigating a legal-size parcel can be wasting water, which could affect neighbors with shallower wells. Freeman said he sometimes has to wait several days for a lawn to dry out before he brings in drilling machinery.
“When you walk out across a lawn and it’s squishing water, it’s too wet,” he said.
Homeowners often rely on landscaping companies, which have an interest in maintaining properties in a lush condition, to set their sprinklers. Powell suggested that homeowners ask their landscapers to set their system at a minimum level.
“A lot of people overwater and they’re not even aware of it,” he said.
Freeman said that with the growing season about at an end, sprinkler systems should be shut off for the season. He said the water table is likely to get even lower as the ground freezes, restricting the ability of water to percolate into the aquifer.
Walker Water Systems employee Koffer said his firm tracked well levels during a drought period in the 1980s, and the levels returned to normal soon after snowfall did.
“If we have a good winter, we could be back up again,” he said. “But with one more dry year, we’ll be seeing a lot more problems.”
Greg Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org