Idaho Economy to Suffer Under Unjustifiable Curtailment Order

The South Fork of the Snake River runs for more than 60 miles across southeastern Idaho. (Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management).
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Thousands of farmers across Snake River Plain must abandon fields, or face steep fines, writes guest columnist Adam Young

by Adam Young, Idaho Capital Sun
May 31, 2024

Last spring, I wrote about the Department of Water Resources’ change to the methodology – or process – they use to estimate water shortfalls and determine curtailments. The Department’s new methodology, which entirely ignores reasonable use of Idaho’s water, is designed to ensure that shortfall predictions and curtailment orders will be both more frequent and more severe. I warned that this would place every acre within the boundaries of the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, along with adjacent industries, counties, and cities, in constant jeopardy of widespread curtailment.

On Thursday, that threat became very real for thousands of farmers across the Snake River Plain, who were greeted by an order from the Department that they must immediately cease irrigating crops on approximately 500,000 acres. This means that farmers must abandon fields that have been planted, fertilized, and cultivated, at the cost of several millions of dollars, or face steep fines. This order, in the absence of an emergency stay, will upend the local and regional economies of eastern Idaho as family farms, grain merchandisers, potato warehouses, food processors, truckers, input suppliers, and equipment dealers see their business models evaporate, and as banks face the prospect of widespread defaults. The realities of our interconnected economy guarantee that widespread disruptions will be felt throughout the state, including in the Magic Valley, whose huge dairy industry, for example, relies on alfalfa from their neighbors to the east. And many of those same banks, equipment dealers, and processers that this order will put out of business are also found in the Magic Valley and across the state. This order hurts individuals and families who have poured their lives into these businesses, owners and employees alike.

What emergency could possibly prompt such an outsize response from IDWR? Over the last several months, our reservoir system has completely filled, over 200 billion gallons of water have been released to prevent flooding, and our rivers have swollen beyond their banks. Our snowpack is above average, we have good soil moisture, and we have enjoyed a cool spring. Yet the department, using a process intentionally designed to overestimate shortfalls, declared last month that one canal in the Magic Valley may experience a 74,100-acre-foot shortfall this year. In order to avoid that possibility, the director is shutting off approximately 1 million acre-feet of irrigation. This despite the fact that the canal in question loses 660,000 acre-feet per year to inefficiencies, according to department calculations.

Yesterday afternoon, the department cynically painted groundwater users as unwilling to “take action to avoid curtailment,” but this portrayal is blatantly false. From 2016 through 2022 groundwater pumpers, on average, conserved (through pumping reductions and aquifer recharge) over 312,000 acre-feet of water annually — much more than was required under the 2015 settlement agreement between canal and groundwater users. Groundwater users have offered, several times, to pay to modernize the Twin Falls Canal, but that offer has been repeatedly rejected. About five months ago, our groundwater district submitted a robust mitigation plan to the department that included aggressive reductions in groundwater-irrigated acreage, ambitious investments in system improvements, and other activities. Other groundwater districts also submitted mitigation plans to the department, but the director has ignored each one, refusing to even set a hearing date for them. This spring, groundwater pumpers worked with neighboring canals to maximize aquifer recharge. And in May, at no small cost, groundwater irrigators leased enough storage water to fully cover our portion of the projected shortfall. That mitigation water, ultimately, was rejected by the director. In short, groundwater pumpers’ mitigation and conservation efforts have been repeatedly blocked by the director. 

It’s hard to understand why the department chooses to be so openly hostile to groundwater irrigators or why they decided to inflict widespread, massive curtailment on the state in a year when water is abundantly plentiful. This is not what sound resource management looks like. It’s time for Idaho’s elected officials to step up and demonstrate true leadership on this crucial issue. This is not how Idaho water law, which relies on both “priority of time” and “the public policy of reasonable use of water,” was ever intended to work.

Adam Young is a third-generation barley, wheat, and alfalfa grower and a member of the Bingham Ground Water District’s board of directors. His family operates 2,700 acres of irrigated farmland in Bingham County.

His commentary was originally published by Idaho Capital Sun. Idaho Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Idaho Capital Sun maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Christina Lords for questions: