Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Facing up to an Imperiled Aquifer

published as commentary in the Post Register, November 27, 2016

I come from a long line of flood irrigators. My great grandfather acquired one of the first water rights out of the Blackfoot River in 1871. Now my husband, who is an artist with a shovel, carefully maneuvers our own 1904 right across our ranch using the power of gravity.

This spreading of river water (surface water) worked to raise the level of the aquifer beneath us right up until the 1950’s, when groundwater pumping began in earnest. This new method of irrigation was efficient and brought many more acres under cultivation than could have been reached by gravity alone. Approximately one million acres are now irrigated by the water-soaked basalt of the Snake River Aquifer. And some 300,000 of us draw our drinking water from the aquifer as well.

At nearly 11,000 square miles in area, it is one of the largest and most productive aquifers in the world. There’s no doubting the economic prosperity it has brought to Southeast Idaho. But we now face the real threat of aquifer declines lower than the benchmark levels of the early 1900’s.

The specter of climate change and the likelihood of receiving more of our annual precipitation as rain instead of snow, further complicates the picture. Snowpack acts as storage and ensures a long seasonal flow of water as temperatures warm throughout the summer.    

On our ranch, we have always believed that too many deep well irrigation pumps had a negative effect on the water table, so we welcomed the recent efforts of local groundwater pumpers to curtail use for this very reason. This voluntary 2015 effort is a great start to realizing that hydrology of surface and ground waters are inextricably linked.    

But the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) has gone a step further. Because the Snake River Aquifer is approaching critical status they have ordered the designation of an Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer Ground Water Management Area. I attended one of the town hall meetings conducted by IDWR this summer to take comments on the plan. Our groundwater pumping neighbors voiced their anger and their concerns. They’ve already agreed to voluntary cutbacks and see this effort as government overreach. They’re afraid they’ll be asked to give up more water in the future when, by agreeing to curtailments in the existing agreement, they were promised “safe harbor” from that threat.

Their argument is valid and I understand their fears. But from a gravity irrigator’s standpoint, who is at the mercy of river flows, I endorse the management area creation. I believe IDWR director Spackman when he says that the Ground Water Management Area gives us a chance to get ahead of aquifer declines and allows for proactive efforts on the wet years as well as the dry. The best thing we as irrigators can do is stay engaged and help with defining the terms of the agreement.

As Judith Schwartz, author of Water in Plain Sight, who looks at the water cycle from a soil management perspective says, “water connects us all.” Here in southeastern Idaho, we see water as our birthright. But change is upon us. And it’s not just an agricultural problem. Societies have always gone the way of their food producing fortunes. At mealtime we’re all agriculturalists. 

Springtime delivery of surface water, our lifeblood

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Soliloquy for Fall

November dawned still as stone today. The forecast says snow and single digits by Tuesday. The canals are quiet again and the long mornings mean an extra cup of coffee and some quiet conversation for me and Mark.   

We’re still finishing up fall chores. I cleaned the various ranch outbuildings – the warming room in the barn, the scale house and the pump house. The mouse droppings have been vacuumed and the windows washed.  

Mark is draining water troughs. He draws the water out with an irrigation siphon tube and/or garden hose. Some years he’s been caught off-guard and has to chop the whole thing out because it freezes solid. A “make work” task for sure.

He helped me dig the red spuds, and to further fill the larder, I picked up the meat we had processed at the local butcher shop. The Mickelson family was hard at work packaging ground beef when I arrived. How thankful we are that this family business is close by. While I was there a Hispanic mother and son picked up a cow’s head in a plastic bag. I don’t know how they prepare that, but am glad to know their culture helps us use the whole carcass. The value of diversity!

After 16 years in our home I finally got a circle drive! What was once a weedy eyesore that attracted ranch paraphernalia like a magnet, is now a graceful, graveled loop. Men with large tractors don’t realize how easy it is to make a wife happy.

We moved the cattle down to the first stair-step towards home. It was a clear, warm day, and with the calves off, the "drys" were quiet and agreeable and moved off the dogs in a fluid motion. We dumped the herd in the Brush Creek field and took them to water before coaxing them up the mountain to where Mark had delivered salt and lick tub treats. This supplement will help them process dry mature grasses, plus reward them for making the climb. They’re lazy and would prefer staying down on the creek.   

2016 has been a tumultuous year across our planet, and with all the strife, I’m feeling very grateful for our bulging freezer, a generous wood pile, and the fact that we go to bed each night without fear of our own countrymen. 

Mark handed me a poem this morning by Bernard J. Patrick, A Thanksgiving Soliloquy, and suggested that with all I could write about, perhaps I could end with this: . . . for every pennyweight of bad, I have found a ton of good. . . good in Nature, in People, in the World. And I’m thankful I belong. 

the way home

the monochromatic beauty of quakies in November

someone's long ago great idea

Kate and me on top of the world

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Original Hydrologist

It keeps raining! There’s a pond at ranch headquarters just like in March when the weather breaks for spring. For a cowboy it’s heaven on earth. Only, what happens if it keeps being this wet and gets really cold? It’s a scary thought when we’ve got cattle grazing at 6,000 feet.

We’ve got beaver trouble. We love them, but their dam is flooding a ditch and creating a large bog across a pasture in the mountains. Mark and Seth waded into the creek and pulled out great quantities of sticks and succeeded in getting the water level dropped. But of course the beaver had the dam rebuilt when we went back. The sound of escaping water is their cue to get to work.  

Mark called Seth to tell him about it. They joked about the big rodent throwing a bugle to his lips and sounding a call to arms to repair the destruction. Mark made a beeping noise, like heavy equipment in reverse. And we laughed, but Mark wasn’t so jocular when we yanked out the sticks on our next trip.

I was convinced there had to be a better way so went researching for alternatives. I found that a pipe at the bottom of the pond could be used to keep the water level at a certain height. Sounds like it might work.  

Beavers are called a keystone species, like the wedge shaped block at the highest point of an arch, they are the one resident of many within an ecosystem, that if removed would cause the whole thing to implode. Their ponds support a myriad of life forms in the wetlands they create and increase the water table throughout the whole watershed.

Their ponds are firstly for predator protection. A beaver is slow and vulnerable on land but can hide quickly in a deep pond. Besides that, floating timbers is easier than dragging them across land. Just like lumberjacks of old who used rivers to transport logs, beavers are clever that way. The pond also serves as cold storage for tree limbs that provide food for the beaver family during winter. They are vegetarians and feed on leaves and the cambium layer of limbs as a mainstay.   

Beavers can spend up to 15 minutes underwater. They mate for life, and the young, the kits, stay with their parents for two years before venturing off to find new territory. Their lodges have secret watery entrances, with the interior living areas warm and protected from predators through the long kit-raising period.

Beaver, nearly trapped to extinction during the fur-trapping heyday in the 1700’s, have made a comeback, but are coming into more and more conflict with human enterprise. In this age of climate change, declining aquifer levels, population growth and fights over water, hydrology - even and especially here in richly irrigated southeastern Idaho - has come to the forefront. It behooves us to reacquaint ourselves with the original hydro-engineers and find ways to enlist their help.

battle lines are drawn!

still lovely by any measure