The water levels of eastern Idaho's massive aquifer continue to plummet.
To combat the troubling trend, state officials have proposed setting up an East Snake Plain Aquifer groundwater management area.
The goal is to formulate a plan where farmers and other groundwater users within an expanded boundary line would be subject to limitations on how much they consume. Instead of reacting haphazardly to water cutbacks demanded by senior downstream surface water users, officials say the idea behind a groundwater management area would be to address the health of the aquifer itself.
"The water calls have led to crisis management, and (we) would like to work toward a more comprehensive management system," Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman said in a statement. "We are looking to find ways to manage the (East Snake Plain Aquifer) in a more proactive fashion."
Water Resources officials, including Spackman, are hosting a series of public meetings across the region next week to gauge interest in the idea of a management area. But a number of farmers already say they're opposed to the plan, or that it appears rushed.
Farmers note that drastic cutbacks in usage already went into effect earlier this year for many eastern Idaho groundwater pumpers. The cuts were the result of a settlement agreement hammered out last year between eastern Idaho's Ground Water Appropriators and the Surface Water Coalition, a group of senior users in southern Idaho who say they're not receiving enough water.
"We're saying, 'Whoa, you guys watched us go through this whole settlement agreement last year, and now you're going to step in and try and manage the aquifer?'" said Robert Murdock, a farmer who grows potatoes and wheat west of Blackfoot. Murdock and four other Blackfoot-area farmers recently wrote a letter to the Post Register outlining their concerns about the proposed plan.
While there is disagreement about what to do about it, most everyone agrees there is a big problem with the East Snake Plain Aquifer, one of the largest and most productive in the world.
From its high-point in the 1950s, the aquifer has gradually lost more than 11 million acre feet of water, state officials estimate. While there have been periods of recovery, the downward trend continues and competition over what remains — including surface water that drains out of the aquifer at Thousand Springs — is only increasing.
Reasons for the decline include changing climate patterns and more irrigated agricultural land. In addition, less water is draining back into the aquifer due to increased efficiency of irrigation systems.
To reverse the downward trend, state officials propose drawing a new boundary within which groundwater users would be required to regulate their consumption. The boundary would likely include groundwater users on the fringe of the aquifer, as well as those in tributaries where groundwater feeds into the larger aquifer, said Mathew Weaver, IDWR's deputy director.
Some examples of areas that might be included in a new groundwater management area include the Rexburg Bench and the Big Lost River Valley, Weaver said. He said there are about 500,000 acres of land that don't fall within the region affected by water calls, but that could be included in the new water management area.
The boundary would be created by Spackman without approval from the Idaho Legislature. At the meetings, IDWR officials plan to ask water users for input on what the boundary should look like.
Murdock, the Blackfoot farmer, and others say they wonder why the creation of a groundwater management area wasn't part of discussions last year related to the settlement agreement. He said he's concerned a groundwater management area could mean future regulations on top of the cutbacks he's already sustained this season.
Murdock said he let 90 acres go fallow and paid about $15,000 to the Bingham Groundwater District for aquifer recharge efforts. He expects he will pay about $90,000 more in the coming months to buy new water meters, required under the agreement.
"It's all coming as wheat prices are terrible, and potatoes aren't good," Murdock said. "It's bad economic timing. We're losing money already, and to have this on top of it — it's not pinching, it's hurting."
Murdock and other farmers met with several eastern Idaho legislators Thursday to discuss the prospect of a management area. "They feel the same as we do, that a groundwater management area isn't the right path," he said.
"I believe the groundwater management area is premature," said Don Parker, who owns a farm in the Mud Lake area.
"We need to allow the Surface Water Coalition agreement (to play out), to see if it's doing the job" in helping stop the aquifer's decline, he said.
Dane Watkins Sr., chairman of the Bonneville-Jefferson Ground Water District with a farm in Osgood, said the groundwater management plan proposal feels rushed.
Watkins and Parker, like Murdock, said they already are feeling the financial pinch from the settlement agreement cuts. And Watkins agreed that officials should wait and see if the existing consumption cutbacks would have the desired effect on the aquifer before moving forward with a new management plan.
"Our goal is to stabilize the aquifer," Watkins said. "It might take a few years to do that. But we hope we can build it back up to where we want it."
There also were concerns that many farmers wouldn't have time to attend the IDWR meetings next week, as many are in the middle of the grain harvest.
Weaver said he understands concerns that a new water management area would add another layer of bureaucracy to existing groundwater pumping regulations already in place.
But he said for those already making sacrifices with the settlement agreement cuts, a groundwater management plan likely wouldn't change much. Officials said parts of the settlement agreement will act as a template for the initial management plan.
"I hope people come to (these meetings), and they do a little self-education beforehand," Weaver said. "I hope they actively participate."