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For the week of June 19 - 25, 2002


Water department to crack down on illegal irrigation

Express Staff Writer

Following complaints by south-county irrigators, the Idaho Department of Water Resources is alerting Blaine County residents that they cannot legally irrigate more than one-half acre of land without a state water right, even when they use water from their own wells.

"This is a major problem all across the southern half of the state," said the departmentís public information officer, Dick Larsen.

Larsen said illegal water use is particularly common in areas where land has been subdivided into ranchettes, such as in the Wood River Valley, Teton County in eastern Idaho and the Eagle area, west of Boise. He said people buy parcels of about five acres and assume they can irrigate all of it with well water.

"Our first step is to alert people," Larsen said. "We believe most people want to be legal but they simply donít know."

Under Idaho law, a property owner can use well water without acquiring a water right only for "domestic use," which includes irrigation of up to one-half acre.

The use of well water affects other irrigators because groundwater flows into water courses such as the Big Wood River and Silver Creek, from which farmers and ranchers draw their water.

"All groundwater is going somewhere," Larsen said.

Two weeks ago, about 25 south-county ranchers and farmers met with Idaho Department of Water Resources representatives in Picabo to discuss their concerns about declining water flows. The irrigators contend that unlawful water use by north-county property owners exacerbates the natural drought conditions caused by three years of dry winters.

"The water gets intercepted up the valley to irrigate landscaping that used to be sagebrush," said Fred Brossy, who manages a 300-acre organic farm near the Little Wood River west of Shoshone.

"Nobody knows to what extent thereís irrigation from domestic wells exceeding half an acre," he said. "The department needs to get a handle on it."

Larsen said the department has not verified the south-county irrigatorsí complaints of illegal use. However, he said, annual measurements of the water levels in Blaine County wells indicate a decline in the water table. Much of that can be attributed to drought, but Brossy said water levels in the Big Wood River and Silver Creek rise in the fall as the irrigating season in the north county tapers off.

When complaints of unauthorized water use are made against specific properties, Larsen said, the department checks to see if the property has a water right. If it doesnít, the department will send the owner a notice of violation. Anyone who refuses to comply is subject to a penalty of $100 per day.

"We donít like getting that far, but we have done that with people who simply blew us off," he said.

An as-yet unknown portion of the groundwater in the northern Wood River Valley flows into the totally spring-fed Silver Creek. Mark Davidson, manager of the Silver Creek Preserve, said there has been a long-term decline of flows in the creek, but the cause of that has not been determined. He said The Nature Conservancy, which owns the preserve, has hired local hydrologist Lee Brown to begin a groundwater study later this month.

"Our groundwater seeps into the ground at different places," Davidson said. "To get an answer to that question will help us get an answer to how groundwater is being impacted in the Hailey-Ketchum area."


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.