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Protecting southeast Idaho water

The Aberdeen Times of Aberdeen, Idaho

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Last Friday, the Director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources issued a stay on the recent Rangen Curtailment Order that would have curtailed water use on 157,000 acres of prime farm land between Hagerman and American Falls.

The Rangen Fish Farm in Hagerman had made a call on water last year, and the director had ruled that Rangen had suffered damage from lack of water flowing from the Cur-ren Tunnel (spring water) and issued the curtailment order. Groundwater pumpers have found ways to provide replacement mitigation water to Rangen. To have so many acres curtailed in Southern Idaho would have been absolutely destructive to our economy. The stay of curtailment is exceptionally good news.

Water continues to be critical in Idaho. Unless the moisture continues to fall as it did the last several weeks, literally the entire Snake River Plain Aquifer may be subject to a water call by lower valley water users. The potential call could lead to a curtailment order on most all of the water pumped from the aquifer, and would curtail several hundred thousand acres from Rexburg to Hagerman. The potential damage to farmers, farm associated businesses and Idaho's economy would be crushing.

There are a couple of solutions to the declining aquifer levels. One is to quit pumping irrigation, city, and manufacture business water from the aquifer. This option would literally destroy Idaho's economy. A very good option would be to raise dams wherever possible. Studies are being done to prepare to raise several dams a few feet in Southern Idaho. The best viable option is to begin an aquifer recharge program. There are locations on the Snake River Plain that have very porous gravel and rock formations. If these locations are developed and enhanced, water could be diverted onto those locations and the water would sink into the aquifer, thereby recharging it.

Recharge can be done on years when there is excess water, like flood water, flowing down the Snake River. It is wrong to let flood waters simply flow down the river and out of the state, when they could be used for recharge. The problem currently facing Idaho is that there has not been enough money to fund the construction and development of recharge sites and to pay to have the water "wheeled" down the canals to the recharge sites.

For many years, Idaho has been receiving tobacco settlement money. Among other things, the settlement money has been used for tobacco cessation programs and to pay for the Capital renovation. The Capital renovation bond will be paid off soon. The available money will be used for several purposes including transportation funding, cessation programs, and school bond equalization. House bill H513 will authorize spending $5 million to fund the desperately needed Idaho aquifer recharge program. This spending will provide foundational funding to begin an extensive recharge program. As water users match those funds from the state, the long term recharge program will at last begin.

Speaker Scott Bedke and I have been working to develop this approach for several weeks. Representatives Neil Anderson, Julie Van Orden and I are co-sponsors on the recharge legislation.

Sen. Steve Bair is a Republican representing District 31, which includes all of Bingham County. He serves as chairman of the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee and vice chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee.

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Original Publication Date: February 26, 2014

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