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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday, March 3, 2004


State proposes to
shut down wells

"I think something is going to happen. It’s unthinkable to dry up 3 or 4 million acres of farm land for two or three hatcheries."

— JOHN PEAVEY, Carey-based rancher

Express Staff Writer

A Carey sheep rancher this week bristled at a decision by the Idaho Department of Water Resources he said could dry up 3 to 4 million acres of Idaho’s farmland.

The state's chief water manager has ordered Magic Valley wells on the north side of the Snake River shut down unless water users can come up with replacement water for Rangen Inc., a Hagerman-area fish hatchery, that is suffering water shortages.

The shutdown ordered on Wednesday, Feb. 25, will apply to wells developed after July 13, 1962.

Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Karl Dreher's order affects groundwater users in Water District 130 that runs from Gooding and Minidoka counties and up into Lincoln County.

The premise of the decision lies with the interconnected nature of the Snake River Plain Aquifer and the rivers and springs that feed it, and rise from it.

The problem is that groundwater has been depleted to the point that it is detracting from the so-called Thousand Springs in the Hagerman Valley, where flows from the aquifer have historically dumped into the Snake River. A Hagerman fish hatchery operator filed a complaint Sept. 23, 2003, to the IDWR because the water it draws from springs has been diminished.

Carey rancher John Peavey said the decision is unnecessary. Curtailing wells 60 miles from Hagerman will take thousands of years to have an effect, he said.

"We’re threatened," he said. "I think something is going to happen. It’s unthinkable to dry up 3 or 4 million acres of farm land for two or three hatcheries." Peavey and his wife, Diane, have a winter ranch in Kimama near Burley. The ranch could be affected by the water decision, Peavey said.

However, it is unclear how many wells will be affected. Lynn Tominaga, director of the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, said an estimated 111,000 irrigated acres could be affected if the wells are shut off.

According to IDWR spokesman Dick Larson, a minimum of 25 dairies, 15 municipalities, "quite a few ranches," potato producers, golf courses, a monastery and several churches will be affected by the department’s decision.

"There’s a wide variety," he said. "Everybody falls under the net of that priority date."

To avoid curtailment, North Snake and Magic Valley groundwater districts must devise a plan that would boost flows to a Hagerman fish hatchery. The plan must be approved by April 1 and must provide Rangen Inc., the Hagerman fish hatchery, with 16,000 acre feet of replacement water that meets fish production water quality standards, or 53,000 acre feet of surface irrigation water for aquifer recharge.

If the April 1 deadline is not met, groundwater will be curtailed until a replacement water plan is approved.

Dreher determined that Rangen's affected water right was short by 16,000 acre feet in 2003.

If districts cannot provide the replacement water through conservation, shutting down the wells would result in an increase of 53,000 acre feet of water recharge in the Hagerman Valley area.

"Trying to come up with that amount of water in a short amount of time is going to be a hardship," Tominaga said, adding that groundwater users are continuing negotiations with Hagerman Valley spring users to avoid well curtailment.

A number of factors have been blamed for the spring shortages, including changes from flood to sprinkler irrigation, development of wells and drought. The only certainties are that the Snake River Plain Aquifer has been significantly altered, and the department’s decision follows four years of drought.

Central Idaho’s lost rivers—the Big Lost, Little Lost, Birch Creek and Camas Creek—as well as the upper Snake River and Henry’s Fork River are some of the aquifer’s significant charging points. The lost rivers only flow into the sink in the Arco Desert, between Howe and Mud Lake, on very wet years. Also, the Snake River is strapped with dams that have changed the way it exchanges water with the aquifer.

At the same time, irrigation canals ferry water to the desert farmlands, where some unused water seeps into the aquifer. Additionally, irrigation and municipal wells are tapping the aquifer.

Peavey said IDWR is looking too far away from the problem to attempt solving it. He said buying water from farms and dairies on the plain near Hagerman could have favorable results.

"That would have a very immediate and very dramatic effect on the stream flows at Hagerman," he said.

The Snake River Plain Aquifer is one of the largest aquifers on earth and extends for 12,000 square miles beneath the Snake River Plain. It is fed primarily on its northern and eastern peripheries, from the mountains of Central Idaho and the eastern edge of the Yellowstone Plateau. The Snake River flows along the southern margin of the plain, fed by tributaries flowing out of the mountains on the south and east sides of the plain.

The aquifer primarily discharges in two locations: Near American Falls Reservoir the aquifer empties through springs at about 2,600 cubic feet per second, and near Hagerman at about 5,200 cubic feet per second.



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