U.S. Water News Online
BOISE, Idaho -- Scores of lawyers, lawmakers and water
experts convened recently to lay the foundation for what state
leaders hope will be a long-term solution to Idaho's increasing water
Prompted by a water rights fight in southern Idaho, the special
legislative committee was part of a late deal between Gov. Dirk
Kempthorne, water users and other state officials to avert an
economic crisis in the Twin Falls-Hagerman area.
But Sen. Laird Noh of Kimberly, co-chairman of the special panel,
said the problems between groundwater and surface water users expand
beyond his region and the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.
``That is by no means the only part of the state where we have
difficulty,'' Noh said.
The panel has expanded its focus to include problems plaguing
groundwater sources for the Rathdrum Prairie area in the Panhandle,
Moscow in north-central Idaho and the Bear River Basin in the
southeastern corner of the state. Members want to get ahead of the
problems in those areas so they do not become as severe as the one in
``We're depleting the aquifers across the state faster than we're
recharging them,'' House Speaker Bruce Newcomb of Burley told the
crowd of 100.
State Water Resources Director Karl Dreher laid out the complex
water management issues facing the panel, which will meet at least
monthly through the year. Working groups were established to assess
specific issues for each aquifer.
But the priority for the committee is resolving the conflict that
has pitted commercial fish hatcheries in the Hagerman valley, who
rely on surface water, against irrigators, dairymen and others, who
pump their water out of the aquifer with wells.
Low flows in the Middle Snake River, blamed on groundwater users
and aggravated by four years of drought, have denied the hatcheries
and other surface water users their full water rights.
The hatcheries invoked their right to receive full allocation by
requiring users with more recent water rights to be cut off. The
last-minute deal headed off the shutdown of 1,300 wells north of the
river and the possibility of $750 million in economic losses to the
The committee has just a year to come up with a solution or the
hatcheries will renew their claim to their full allocation.
The state is putting up $2 million to provide replacement water
for the hatcheries this year and help all water right holders find
more efficient ways to use the limited resource.
``This isn't just fish farmers,'' Newcomb said. ``It's people who
flush a toilet. It's people who turn on a faucet who are at risk
``We're going to have to change the way we look at things,'' he
Dreher said 95 percent of the water Idaho consumes for
residential, commercial and municipal purposes comes from aquifers --
the highest reliance on groundwater of any state in the nation.
``If, in fact, our groundwater resources are diminishing, that
does not bode well for our future,'' he said.
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