Idaho’s Water Crisis

Idaho’s Water Crisis



By Karen Schumacher


By now, many may already be aware of the current “crisis” with the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) “curtailing” the use of ground water to farmers with “junior rights” in eastern Idaho.  IDWR based the curtailment on farmers for either failing to submit a mitigation plan, or submitting an unacceptable water mitigation plan, by May 2.


In the Magic Valley, surface water farmers have “senior rights” so they have priority over water flowing to that area.  The curtailing is all based on the continued shrinkage of the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer (ESPA) and mitigation plans to conserve or recharge the water in the aquifer.  The Comprehensive Aquifer Management Plan (CAMP), passed in 2009, was intended to establish “a long-term program for managing water supply and demand in the ESPA through a phased approach for implementation”.


One issue that doesn’t seem to make the news is that water rights are the same as private property rights.  Even IDWR acknowledges “Water rights are real property rights”.  Basically with the curtailment, the state is taking real property from the farmer.


In the IDWR’s final Sustainability section of its State Water Plan, it states, “Ensure that all actions taken toward a sustainable water future protect and respect private property rights both in the land and water rights”, and develop management plans “while respecting private property rights”.


Idaho statute 42-222A states that when a “drought emergency” is declared, and with the Governor’s approval, IDWR “is authorized to allow temporary changes to the use of water rights.”  As far as what has been reported, there has been no drought emergency declared.


By IDWR’s own admission, the ESPA “is a key element of southern Idaho’s economy” covering “10,800 square miles”, and producing “approximately 21% of all goods and services” with “an estimated annual value of $10 billion.”  By shutting water off to the eastern Idaho agricultural sector, the economic loss will not only affect the farmers but also the general population and state.


In 2015, as junior water rights holders, the “Idaho Ground Water Appropriators (IGWA)” in eastern Idaho came to a settlement with the senior water rights holders, the “Surface Water Coalition (SWC)” members  in the Magic Valley area, laying out several provisions that would be taken to ensure water conservation for the aquifer while maintaining senior water rights.  Objective c of the settlement states to “Minimize economic impact on individual water users and the state economy arising from water supply shortages.”  Objective f also states the intent to “pass legislative changes needed to support the objectives of this Settlement Agreement”.  The settlement was subsequently amended twice in 2015, and in 2016, with a map identifying the well locations in 2017.  In 2022, the problem with city growth and increased water demand was addressed as water needs pull from the aquifer as well.


The settlement also refers to “calculation techniques to measure ground water levels.”  Melaleuca’s Executive Chairman, Frank VanderSloot, spoke to the issue of those calculations, or formulas, being changed by IDWR in an interview.  He also referenced the massive economic loss this will have for Idaho in which this article provides more details.  It won’t just be the farmers that will be economically impacted if water is shut off to this area.  According to this eastern Idaho farmer, it is about mismanagement of the resource, not a shortage.  Along with VanderSloot, this farmer and others agree that Governor Little has the authority to address the issue but so far has not done so.


The problem with changes in the calculations and impact on the economy is also noted by this farmer, saying IGWA went beyond what has been requested in conserving water.  And in spite of offering to pay for an upgrade to “modernize the Twin Falls Canal” the “offer has been repeatedly rejected.”  It is always good to find out what the full story is from those in the trenches.  However, investments are being made to reduce the amount of water waste in the Magic Valley.



Current IDWR Director, Mathew Weaver, has even admitted that “Historically, a significant amount of water has flowed out of the state, untapped.”  He reports that efforts to reduce this water loss to other states with infrastructure development have been happening for 15 years.  Sounds like it needs to move faster.


As of June 13, IDWR and eastern Idaho water districts continue to work on finding a solution to avoid having IGWA wells shut off.


Another aspect not reported is that water use in the ESPA has been in litigation for several years with SWC wanting more water.  The current mitigation plan came from the court in 2019 with subsequent amendments, the last in 2023 by the IDWR Director that increased the allotted water to SWC users.  That decision is still being challenged.


Now the farmer in this video mentions the possibility of the senior water rights holders charging people who are not in their canal system for using water in the state, which is dismissed by another individual as being only equivalent to twelve days’ worth of water.  But it does raise the question of the Lava Ridge wind project simultaneously announcing plans to move forward with its project, in spite of massive local objections.  There is also the upcoming Salmon Falls wind project waiting to move forward.  Wind projects have impacts to groundwater, and to surface runoff patterns.  Even Rep. Glenneda Zuiderveld questioned the relationship between these two issues.


While Magic Valley Energy makes light of any water problems for their wind project, claiming the use of water for the Lava Ridge project is “minimal” because the “huge aquifer” is like a “big bathtub” and “in pretty good shape”, there is a unreported component to the story.


Apparently, “The water required to support construction activities will not add to the cumulative use of water in the region, drawing instead from previously permitted sources already allocated for use, such as those available through rental from the Water Supply Bank.”  The Water Supply Bank “facilitate the acquisition and voluntary exchange of water rights, for new and supplemental water uses.”  And there is an ESPA modeling tool for renting water rights.  “Water rights can be leased from a willing seller near the project area. The seller would pause their water usage for the two-year period to allow for the needed water for construction.”


It really becomes highly suspect that the extra water for the Magic Valley area might have something to do with profits for a project that seems to be moving forward in spite of opposition.


To offset their losses some eastern Idaho farmers enroll in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), or the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP).  By taking their land out of food production, instead planting food for wildlife, they are paid by the government.  Somehow this removes greenhouse gas emissions but in reality, it just makes land worthless and non-productive which is another whole story in itself.  Most people with common sense would rather have locally grown food to eat, and maintain livelihoods.


This USGS has a map that shows the streamflow in real time.


Hopefully, this crisis will be solved without devastation to the farmers and economy.  As we look at the environment and the amount of water being used, are there ways water usage can be reduced?  While this is only affecting the farmers now, at some point everyone will be targeted for their water use.  It might be time to rethink that lawn and instead opting for a landscape that drinks less.