U.S. Water News Online
TWIN FALLS, Idaho -- Look up and wave. Satellite images can
tip off state water regulators that you're irrigating with water you
don't have a legal right to use.
The Idaho Department of Water Resources is using satellite imagery
-- not so detailed that it can make out a house or a person standing
in the yard, but it can show irrigated tracts of land.
Computerized water rights maps are layered over satellite images
that display irrigated land as bright red shapes in a patchwork of
greens, whites and yellows. Any red areas not surrounded by a water
right boundary are red flags for water managers. From there, an
inspection may begin, and citations can follow.
In the past, enforcement was driven mostly by complaints about
improper water use, said Allen Merritt, Water Resources' regional
manager in Twin Falls. But now water managers have images of the
thousands of acres of irrigated farmland across the Snake River Plain
at their fingertips.
``It's like a permanently open pair of eyes in the sky,'' agency
spokesman Dick Larsen said.
The technology has been adapted from water right inventories and
mapping done through the Snake River Basin Adjudication, the state's
massive water rights case involving water users in 38 of the state's
44 counties. The SRBA is providing Idaho with a modern catalog of
water rights and resolving a myriad of Idaho water law issues. The
more than 20-year-old adjudication has cost the state about $60
Water Resources has used the combined satellite and mapping
technology in the SRBA since 1997. Three years ago it applied the
technology to spot unauthorized water use during the irrigation
The idea of being watched from above is in some ways distasteful,
Larsen acknowledged. But the technology allows the department to
manage water use to the degree that Idahoans want it. The department
has always said that Idahoans don't want a water police force, but
they do want the state's water managed, he said.
``If we hear one ongoing complaint, it's that we're not enforcing
our own laws,'' Larsen said.
Life in the arid West hinges on water, after all, and water
disputes are as old as the settlements here. But today, it's not the
farmer with the biggest pitchfork who wins.
The satellite technology can give the public confidence in the
state's ability and accuracy in managing water, Larsen said.
Cindy Yenter is the department's water master for groundwater use
on the north side of the Snake River in the Magic Valley. Comparing
satellite images from year to year is a simple way to observe general
changes in irrigation use across the region, she said.
Some people think of it as ``big brother,'' but most people she
has encountered have been pleased illegal water use is being stopped,
she said. It can be a relief for people who don't want to report
``People are getting the message,'' Yenter said.
Last year there were seven notices of violation issued in the
region, compared with one and possibly two more this year, she said.
Investigations have ranged in size from 24 acres to 150 acres.
Most people work with the department to solve the problem and
negotiate fines -- that can be as much as $300 an acre -- down to
paying the department's investigation costs of a couple hundred
dollars, Larsen said.
The technology has been used for the past three years with state
water managers, focusing initially on two new southern Idaho water
districts. The districts are north of the Snake River from Hagerman
to Rupert and from Rupert to north of Idaho Falls. Major legal
disputes between water user groups have been under way in these
areas, with some irrigators wanting water users to account for all of
their water consumption.
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