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The water is back on in Central Idaho, six days after a devastating ruling to turn off the spigot on 23,000 acres of irrigated farmland south of Bellevue in the Wood River Valley.
The order to turn off the water was lifted Thursday morning following a complex settlement between surface water users along the Little Wood River and groundwater users in what’s known as the Bellevue Triangle in Blaine County, where such crops as barley, wheat, alfalfa and potatoes are grown.
Without the settlement, farmers would have suffered untold damages in planted crops.
“That intangible thing called ‘The Idaho Way,’” Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke told me in his office Thursday afternoon. “That’s what happened this week with this deal.”
Without getting too technical, this is what essentially happened: Groundwater users, the farmers who pump water from wells — who mostly have junior water rights — had to shut off their water because there wasn’t enough to trickle down to the surface water users, who are the farmers taking irrigation water from rivers and canals — the ones with senior water rights. If the groundwater users kept pumping, there would be nothing left for the surface water users. So the Idaho Department of Water Resources ordered the groundwater users to shut off their wells.
As evidence of the problem, The Nature Conservancy completely closed access to fishing at the Silver Creek Preserve on July 2, citing low water levels and extreme heat, according to the Idaho Mountain Express.
In Thursday’s deal, those with senior water rights agreed to allow those with junior rights to keep pumping water from their wells through Aug. 15 — just enough time to get a cutting of alfalfa and save the other grain crops.
In exchange, the surface water users, in a deal facilitated by Bedke, were able to piece together enough water from other sources to make everyone whole.
Bedke was able to secure 1,000 acre-feet of water from Ririe Reservoir and 500 acre-feet from Henry’s Lake Reservoir, which junior water rights users paid for, and the Twin Falls Canal Company donated another 1,000 acre-feet of water to the effort.
“There will be enough to just limp by,” said Idaho’s House speaker.
The Idaho Department of Water Resources, which ordered the water shutoff on July 1, approved the deal.
If you can imagine what your lawn would look like if you had turned your sprinklers off for the past week, you can imagine the anxiety among those farmers who had to turn off their water.
As most people know, Idaho is heavily reliant on agriculture, which is the single largest contributor to our economy and accounts for 20% of our gross state product.
Drought has gripped much of the West. Idaho has been spared the worst of it, but the Wood River Valley was not. Twenty-three thousand acres of farmland may not seem like a big deal in a state with some 3.3 million acres of irrigated farmland, but the situation in Central Idaho is a harbinger of climate change.
While this week’s deal is a temporary fix, and likely won’t be able to combat another year of drought or widespread drought, Bedke is right that the agreement among the water users is cause for optimism.
“People who didn’t like each other, people who are competing with each other, fight with each other, they came together and said, ‘Time out,’” Bedke said. “‘I don’t want to put you out of business.’ … There were some bumps and twists and turns, but enough people came together and started listening to their better nature and came to an agreement that benefited everyone. It’s what makes this place such a good place to be. Stuff like this makes me optimistic.”
We’re going to need that optimism, because even harsher days are ahead. And we all know that old saying, “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting.”
Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.