U.S. Water News Online
BOISE, Idaho — The head of the Idaho Department of Water Resources has told hundreds of groundwater users in south-central Idaho that they'll have to stop pumping water this spring, saying that a fish farm has first right to the limited resource.
The notice of curtailment order came from David Tuthill. It is intended to ensure that Clear Springs Foods, a fish farm near Hagerman, has access to the water it is entitled to under Idaho's water rights law. The law distributes water rights on a first-come, first-served basis, and the fish farm has an older, or senior, water right compared to the 865 junior water rights held by roughly 430 farmers, municipalities and others affected by the curtailment.
The order encompasses about 41,000 acres of irrigated land, along with water pumped for industrial, municipal, commercial and other uses. It includes entities and people in Cassia, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka and Twin Falls counties.
Tuthill said he ordered the curtailment after the groundwater users backed out of a mitigation plan that would have provided water to the fish farm.
Tuthill said his office allows him to curtail water use by some right holders, or to approve agreements between junior and senior water right holders that swap money or fish for water. But, Tuthill said, he can't approve a plan unless it's approved by everyone involved.
“That's the heart of this order,” he said. Last year, the groundwater users offered a mitigation plan that included money and water to be given to Clear Springs Foods and in exchange, the groundwater users would be allowed to continue pumping water. However, Tuthill said the groundwater users withdrew the water portion of that offer in September. Now he says they're only offering to give the fish farm money or to replace any lost fish.
Forcing Clear Springs Foods and its owner, Snake River Farms, to accept the modified plan would be akin to taking away their senior water right, Tuthill said.
The curtailment order takes effect on March 16. But Tuthill said the groundwater users could still stave off curtailment, provided they come up with a new mitigation plan that Clear Springs Foods accepts before March 12.
Officials with Clear Springs Foods could not be immediately reached.
“This will have between a $1 million and $2 million impact,” said Lynn Tominaga, executive director of the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, an association of groundwater and irrigation districts in southern Idaho. “We tried very hard to negotiate something with Snake River Farms and the issue is they want 20 to 30 times what their actual losses would be in production for those facilities. And that's why there's a lot of animosity, because instead of working with us to get this settled they have worked against us at every opportunity.”
The groundwater users offered to pump water from a nearby river to fill the fish farm, but it wasn't clean enough or cold enough to meet Clear Springs Foods standards, Tominaga said.
Tominaga said the group had yet to talk over the curtailment notice with its attorneys, but he said members would likely try again to get a mitigation plan approved, or appeal Tuthill's decision in court.
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