Growth + climate change = pending water crisis in Idaho. Let’s sound the alarm now

Irrigation water is siphoned into a farmer’s field in Caldwell.
·7 min read

Most farmers and longtime residents of Idaho will tell you: We go through good water years, we go through dry years.

They’ll often be able to tick off those dry years and recount how we bounced back, eventually recovering from the drought.

Idaho has had a few good water years, but we hit a drought this year.

A relatively dry fall in 2020 set the stage, and then there was a below-normal snowpack over the winter, followed by a dry spring. All of that formed Idaho’s current drought conditions.

We’ll get through this year, for sure.

But what if this is our new normal? What if the dry years start to outnumber our good water years?

Jeff Raybould and Brian Patton aren’t ready to sound the alarm just yet.

The Idaho Statesman editorial board met with Raybould, chairman of the Idaho Water Resource Board, and Patton, executive officer of the board, which is charged with planning for Idaho’s water future.

“I don’t think we’re at the point yet where we ought to be panicking,” Raybould said. “I think we have everything in place, the mechanisms are there to make sure that the water gets spread out to where it’s supposed to go, in the priority that is supposed to get there.”

Both he and Patton stressed that one year doesn’t make a trend, and they point out that we’ve been through dry years before.

But some of us believe that what we’re seeing now is the harbinger of climate change and that we’d better plan for its impacts.

As we saw this year, 23,000 acres of planted, irrigated farmland were nearly lost when the water started to run out and wells were ordered shut off on June 27.

It’s a small chunk of the 3.3 million acres of Idaho’s irrigated farmland, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see the impacts that drought could have across Idaho, a state that’s still heavily reliant on agriculture for much of its economy.

Idaho water projects

The Idaho Water Resource Board recently adopted a list of about 20 major water projects needed statewide to improve water supply resiliency and sustainability, including replacing aging water infrastructure, expanding aquifer recharge infrastructure and expanding snowpack cloud-seeding operations to enhance water supply. All told, the projects would cost an estimated $843 million and rely on federal COVID-19 relief money.

These are good projects and certainly will help — if they happen.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, a rancher, on Thursday threw his support behind these projects.

“Our focus must be on securing supply for Idaho’s growing population, particularly in light of our recent drought conditions,” Bedke wrote in a statement. “With that in mind, in partnership with our friends on the Idaho Water Resource Board, I am developing a plan to use federal ARPA dollars to increase our state aquifer recharge capability. Increased aquifer storage will then be available to address the growing demand of the hundreds of communities that rely on groundwater to support their population, creating a responsible and sustainable response to the demands of Idaho’s continuing growth.”

Our concern is that these projects might be too little and come too late, especially if climate change and its impacts are accelerating.

Take, for example, one project on the list: enlarging Anderson Ranch Reservoir by raising the height of the dam by 6 feet.

It’s taken nearly 20 years of planning to make it happen — and it still hasn’t happened.

Patton suggested the possibility of raising Lucky Peak or Arrowrock at some point to increase water storage, but “this raise at Anderson Ranch is the first time we’ve gotten congressional authorization and federal funding for a significant new water storage project in the state of Idaho in 50 years. So these opportunities don’t come along every day, so I am not sure when the next one will come along, but we’ll be pushing for it.”

By then, though, it may be too late.

Increasing water demand

Further, while additional storage at Anderson Ranch is great, it would add only 29,000 acre-feet of water.

To put that in context, three dams on the Boise River — Anderson Ranch, Arrowrock and Lucky Peak — hold about a million acre-feet of water.

And it wouldn’t be nearly enough to meet the projected future demand.

A 2016 water study commissioned by the Idaho Water Resource Board and the Idaho Department of Water Resources concluded that the demand in the Treasure Valley alone for domestic, commercial, municipal and industrial water could increase from 110,000 acre-feet per year in 2015 to between 219,000 and 298,000 acre-feet per year by the year 2065. That means finding an additional 109,000 to 188,000 acre-feet of water per year.

Let’s be clear: That’s assuming the water is even available.

If we have consecutive low-water years, we could have water storage capacity ’til the cows come home, but it won’t do a lick of good if we can’t fill the reservoirs to begin with.

We appreciate and respect the efforts that the water board members are making to address supply, and we recognize that’s a huge challenge. There’s only so much they can do.

“I think building a brand-new major reservoir is going to be a really tough lift in the current environment,” Patton conceded.

While some river irrigation systems have storage capacity for eight years, the Boise River and Upper Snake River systems are built to provide a one-year supply. That limits how far in advance we can take action. We collect what we collect, then slowly release what we have over the course of an irrigation season. When we’re out of water, we’re out of water.

Water conservation needed now

That’s why more emphasis needs to be placed on conservation.

As it is, most of us are going about our business as usual, watering our lawns, tending our gardens. Farmers are soaking their crops with pivots and using as much water as they’re allotted at the beginning of the season.

During the current heat wave, the average household in Boise is using nearly 15% more water than normal, according to data from Suez Water Idaho, the largest provider in the city. Suez customers used 159.4 million gallons of water in June and July, much more than the nearly 140 million gallons used during the same period in 2019.

This comes as we’re in the middle of record-setting temperatures and dry conditions that show no sign of letting up.

As climate change continues to exact its toll, water will become scarcer, and we’ll be forced to mandate water conservation measures.

Better to start taking action on those measures now.

We need to rethink our love for lawns in the Treasure Valley and consider xeriscaping.

Even though Boise is the City of Trees, we need to remember that we live in a desert. Idaho is part of the Great Basin Desert, which is the largest of four deserts in North America. And like all deserts, it doesn’t get much moisture.

Recognizing that agriculture uses about 80% of our water supply, farmers need to look at their practices and conserve where they can.

Water conservation measures now would help to build up a reserve for the following year, if indeed we do have a dry fall, low snowpack and dry spring. Coupled with solutions for alternatives to flood control, which the board is working on, this would help mitigate short irrigation seasons in at least the following year.

We’re not convinced that Idaho is prepared for the effects of climate change on our water supply, and we’re not convinced that state officials are taking it seriously enough to sound the alarm.

We sure hope they’re correct, and that this is just part of the normal ebb and flow of water supply in Idaho.

But if this is our new normal in the West, we’re going to be in a world of hurt, unprepared on solving our water woes.

We’d rather be alarmists than be left high and dry.

Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board. Board members are opinion editor Scott McIntosh, editor Chadd Cripe and newsroom editors Dana Oland and Jim Keyser and community members J.J. Saldaña and Christy Perry.

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