Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Issues Water Restriction Order • Idaho Capital Sun

Mathew Weaver, director of the Idaho Water Resources Authority, issued a curtailment order Thursday afternoon that requires 6,400 special status groundwater rights holders who pump from the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer to have their water shut off.

The order would affect groundwater users who, according to the Idaho Department of Water Resources, are not complying with the state's cleanup plans, according to a department press release issued Thursday.

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“We are surprised that six groundwater districts have chosen not to comply with the terms of their approved remediation plans and subject their members to cuts,” said Brian Patton, deputy director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources, in a written statement.

Idaho Governor Brad Little issued a statement Thursday afternoon supporting the order.

“A water restriction is never desirable, but the director must comply with Idaho law and the Constitution in issuing this order,” Little wrote.

The order would affect about 500,000 acres of agricultural land in eastern Idaho and the Magic Valley if groundwater users do not comply. Groundwater users who have not participated in a groundwater mitigation district have 15 days to join a plan or face restrictions, the Idaho Department of Water Resources said.

Under Idaho law, Weaver will issue an updated order in July that takes into account the new water supply and crop yield needs, the agency said.

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Water rights in Idaho are governed by what is known as the doctrine of first-come, first-served appropriation. If there is not enough water for everyone, holders of the first-ranking water rights get their water first, and holders of the second-ranking water rights have their water shut off—or restricted—if there is not enough water for everyone.

“Idaho must preserve its water sovereignty and not end up like other western states in the Colorado River Basin, such as California, where the federal government has stepped in to take control of the state's water,” Little said in his written statement. “We absolutely must preserve water for future generations, and that's why the Legislature and I have supported historic half a billion dollars in investments over the past few years to modernize water infrastructure across the state.”

“My administration has been working on this issue for years, most recently by creating an Advisory Panel on Groundwater Management Plans,” Little added. “Users should determine their own destiny, and the creation of the panel will continue to help them find solutions outside of government. Idahoans have always solved their own problems and will continue to do so, and we remain committed to working with all of Idaho's water users to ensure we have a sustainable water supply for this and future generations.”

“If we maintain the status quo on water use in the Eastern Snake Plain, we are setting up failure for our children and grandchildren,” Little said.

How do water rights work in Idaho?

In Idaho, surface water users generally have priority rights, while groundwater users have secondary rights.

For example, the Twin Falls Canal Co. has priority water rights dating back to 1900. The curtailment order issued by Weaver on Thursday affects groundwater users who have secondary water rights dating back to 1954.

On April 18, Weaver issued a water supply order for the 2024 irrigation season that created a water shortage of 74,100 acre-feet for the Twin Falls Canal Co. Weaver gave subordinate water rights holders a May 2 deadline to notify the Idaho Department of Water Resources that they are in compliance with their approved mitigation plans, as the Idaho Department of Water Resources previously announced in a May 10 press release.

Thursday's new curtailment order would apply to groundwater users that the Idaho Department of Water Resources determines are not operating under an approved remediation plan. Those groups include the Bingham Groundwater District, Carey Valley Groundwater District, North Snake Groundwater District, Magic Valley Groundwater District, Bonneville-Jefferson Groundwater District and Jefferson-Clark Groundwater District.

Several other groundwater users operate under an approved plan and face no restrictions, including the Coalition of Cities, Southwest Irrigation District, Henry's Fork Groundwater District, Madison Groundwater District, and others.

The prospect of restricting water rights for junior water rights holders is not a new problem. Water issues have been litigated in Idaho courtrooms for decades, with a major settlement reached in 2016. Most recently, the Idaho Department of Water Resources issued an order last year that included a restriction order that was put on hold pending a hearing with the department. Idaho Capital Sun previously reported. Ultimately Department did not turn off the water last year after determining that there was no water shortage at this location last summer.

Anna Harden

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