U.S. Water News Online
BOISE, Idaho -- The state's top water official has given
hundreds of farmers, dairymen and other groundwater users in southern
Idaho until July 6 to quit pumping or satisfy the demands of two
trout farms that say they've been forced to slash fish production
because they aren't getting water they're legally due.
The order from Dave Tuthill, state Department of Water Resources
director, covers 591 water rights over 16,638 acres, fewer than the
771 water rights on 33,000 acres discussed when Tuthill announced a
proposed curtailment in April.
Still, representatives of Magic Valley groundwater pumpers say
economic losses on fields already planted with crops such as sugar
beets and potatoes could approach $20 million.
Tuthill's shutoff order is the latest development in Idaho's water
woes, exacerbated by aggressive groundwater pumping and another year
of drought. Though Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter called a water summit
April 17 to discuss broader solutions to conflicts between Eastern
Snake Plain Aquifer groundwater pumpers and holders of century-old
water rights, this order seems to indicate that sometimes shutting
pumpers down is the only way.
"Curtailment is a last resort, but we are obligated under Idaho
law to follow through with enforcement when mitigation is not
provided," Tuthill said. "The parties involved so far have not
presented an acceptable solution to get through 2007, so I have no
choice but to issue these curtailment orders."
The aquifer is a Lake Erie-sized underground reservoir stretching
from Elmore County to Rexburg that feeds the Snake River at the
natural Thousand Springs area near Hagerman.
Drinking water won't be affected by the order, but gardeners and
those with lawns in towns like Wendell and Shoshone could be forced
to turn off their sprinklers. Some commercial, industrial and
municipal water users also would be affected.
Pumpers have until July 6 to either deliver a mitigation plan --
or shut off their pumps.
Otherwise, they'll face state fines of as much as $300 per acre.
Lynn Tominaga, director of the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators,
estimates the cost of the shutoff to farmers could be as high as
$1,200 an acre, meaning their economic losses could be $20 million,
not including industrial water users in the region.
Tominaga said this is the first time a curtailment order has been
issued after growers planted their fields.
"The problem that you run into is the lending institutions," he
told The Associated Press. "If a bank knows that you don't have the
water to finish out your crop and harvest, are you going to get a
loan to farm? "
Earlier this year, the Idaho Legislature set aside $15 million for
an "economic emergency." Otter aides said tapping the fund has been
discussed, to help ease possible losses for growers and southern
Tuthill said he's still optimistic that groundwater users will
submit fresh plans to try to avert a shutdown.
Earlier this year, groundwater pumpers submitted a plan to set
aside 45,000 acre feet of water for the trout farms.
But the state rejected the proposal. Pumpers could use canals to
ship 65-70 degree water to the trout farms, but those operations need
colder, 54-degree spring water that's clean enough to drink in order
to raise their fish.
"The challenge for the groundwater users is to provide water
either through recharge, or through the retirement of wells near the
springs that feed the trout farms," Tuthill told the AP in an
Blue Lakes Trout Farm and Clear Springs Foods first demanded the
shutoff in 2005 -- they have older water rights than the groundwater
pumpers, and say they haven't been getting their share.
Idaho is the nation's largest producer of farm-raised rainbow
trout, with the industry valued at about $35 million annually. That's
down 5 percent since 1999, and large fish-growing operations say
they've been hurt by not receiving the water allotted to them by
their water rights.
"Our crop yields have been curtailed," said Gregory Kaslo,
president of Blue Lakes, describing how water shortages have hurt his
business. "The demand for Idaho rainbow trout outstrips the supply.
We have to turn down orders that we cannot fill because we don't have
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