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

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