No more ignoring the obvious: Idaho sucks itself dry

  • Irrigated lands of Snake River Plain & Annual Discharge/ID Dept Water Res/Sylvain

  • Big Lost River/Diane Sylvain

  • Irrigated farmland in Magic Valley along Snake River/Glenn Oakley

  • Snake River is drained of 98 percent of its water at Milner Dam/Steve Stuebner

  • Charlie Traughber shows off billboards about dry Big Lost River/Steve Stuebner


ARCO, Idaho - They stand like giant tombstones in a graveyard. Hundreds of black cottonwood trees - all dead or just barely hanging on - line the dry cobblestones of the Big Lost River.

Charlie Traughber cusses state water authorities as he points out decaying groves of cottonwoods across the Big Lost River Valley.

"Gawd, this is just terrible - it's total devastation," Traughber says, his voice rising with anger. "This used to be so green and pretty. Now it's all dead."

Traughber remembers a cool breeze in the 1970s rolling off the river, touching his face; he recalls wielding his fly rod in a box canyon, several miles south of Arco, the water's surface all abuzz with insects, and hooking four-pound trout. It was a real river then, providing water for irrigation and aquatic life.

Today, the Big Lost is a broken river.

In the last 15 years, farmers with groundwater pumps have drained the Big Lost River and its aquifer to the point where the town of Arco, population 1,000, had to drill 640 feet recently to find water.

Older wells at 120 feet and 250 feet have begun sucking air. Meantime, fish in the Big Lost River are also sucking air - there's no water left in the lower reach of the river - and that means farmers who irrigate from the river are left high and dry, too.

"I say they're raping the groundwater," says Lew Rothwell, a longtime Arco farmer. "And it's not just happening in this valley." Traughber and Rothwell are angry at state water authorities who allowed farmers not only to drain the Big Lost dry 10 miles north of Arco, but also to pump down the aquifer to the point where it seems as though the river will be lost forever.

Both men are disgusted for admittedly personal reasons: Traughber bought his home on the banks of the Big Lost 20 years ago so he could fly-fish from his backyard. He figured with prime river frontage it would appreciate in value.

"Now," he laments, "it's not worth a thing."

Rothwell has been raising hay and grain crops on a 200-acre farm along the banks of the Big Lost for 35 years. But during Idaho's ongoing eight-year drought, he's been lucky to raise a single cutting of hay instead of the normal three cuttings. Last September, Rothwell's crop land looked like the Sahara Desert.

His water right dates to the late 1800s, meaning he has a "senior" right that should give him a higher priority for water than those farmers who irrigate with groundwater pumps and whose water rights date only to the 1950s or later. But in the Big Lost, and in the Snake River Basin as a whole, the age-old water law of first in time, first in right, hasn't been strictly applied.

Farmers who irrigate from the river grieve over brown fields, while groundwater pumpers have hundreds of acres of juicy spuds.

"They've ruined my place," says Rothwell, a soft-spoken man. Eight years ago, he refused a $610,000 offer to sell his farm. He held out for more, counting on the sale for his retirement.

"Today, you couldn't give it away," he says. "I've kicked my butt ever since."

The fragility of the Big Lost shows clearly in the way the river peters out naturally to dust in the high desert after it leaves the mountains, even in healthy years.

Pump or lose water

Concerns about over-pumping in the Big Lost River Valley are mirrored across the Snake Basin. Unbridled groundwater pumping throughout southern Idaho has set up a heated clash between farmers who divert water from rivers for irrigation and those who lift water from underground. And even as they are being challenged by stream irrigators, pumpers are pointing fingers at each other for draining the Snake Plain Aquifer - one of the largest freshwater aquifers in the West - at the fastest rate in state history.

In an attempt to foster the "full economic development" of the Snake River, state water authorities - and an Idaho Legislature dominated by ranchers and farmers - have pushed a policy that has led to legal chaos, rising tempers and environmental destruction. No quick fix is in sight.

But everyone, except for the pumpers, wants the state to enforce the doctrine of prior appropriation, honor senior water rights and stop "mining" the groundwater. Mining is defined as removing groundwater faster than it can be naturally recharged.

"The department has handed out water rights and groundwater permits as if there's no tomorrow," says Gary Sledde, a water attorney with the powerful firm of Rosholt Robertson & Tucker in Twin Falls. The firm represents Idaho Power Co. and farmers with senior surface water rights.

"The fish were there first, but they didn't fill out the (water rights) forms," adds Wendy Wilson, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. "Electricity has been so cheap (from hydroelectric dams) that farmers can afford to go deeper and deeper and deeper for water. Where's it going to stop?"

Don't worry - there's plenty of water

Longtime Idaho Water Resources Director Keith Higginson denies that either the Snake or the Big Lost is overtapped. "There's no such thing as an overappropriated stream in Idaho," he says. "There will be years when flood flows will fill all of the water rights in the basin."

Higginson's philosophy of management is simple: If an irrigator's home stream dries up, drill a well.

"The resource is so huge that the water being consumed is only a small part of what's there," he says of the Snake Plain Aquifer. "If we hadn't had a drought, it's my view that this issue would never have come up and no one would be complaining. But the drought has accentuated the problem and now everyone is complaining."

An even bigger water brawl is brewing for 1995. Federal authorities charged with saving endangered salmon and five species of snails are expected to take up to 1 million acre-feet of storage water from the Upper Snake - more than twice as much as they fetched in 1994. Due to the drought, farmers don't expect there to be enough water for them in 1995, much less for the salmon.

When it comes to a choice, farmers seem to care more about their livelihoods than they do about endangered salmon.

"I've fished for salmon and steelhead all of my life," says Hagerman farmer Dan McFadden. "But water is the most precious resource we've got. If we don't have water, we're out of business."

Tim Palmer, author of The Snake River - Window to the West, published in 1991, says the problems on the Snake Plain have been building.

"For years, we knew that there wasn't enough water," Palmer says. "We knew there was too much water being pumped from the aquifer; we knew there wasn't enough water for salmon. Yet we failed to act on these problems - even in the face of alarming data - because the political leaders were so effective at protecting the status quo. Now, we're seeing so many of these problems coming down in an avalanche."

Jeopardized "Nile'

Rising in the southern end of Yellowstone National Park, the Snake collects runoff from the Tetons in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and cuts across the crescent-shaped Snake River Plain before plunging through Hells Canyon, the deepest chasm in North America, along the Oregon-Idaho border.

In a new book, Snake - The Plain and Its People, editor Todd Shallat calls the Snake "the Nile of Idaho, the lifeline of the desert." Each spring, the Snake receives a fountainhead of water from mountain ranges that ring the plain. The river yields an average of 36 million acre-feet per year at Lewiston, Idaho. Its volume surpasses the Colorado River by two and one-half times. Because the Snake flows through the state of Idaho before it flows into Washington, Idaho farmers, food-processing plants, fish farms and cities have enjoyed a magnanimous water supply.

Today, Idahoans enjoy the dubious distinction of being the nation's second-largest guzzlers of water, just behind Californians. Idahoans use an average of 8.1 trillion gallons of water each year, with irrigated agriculture consuming 97 percent of the total.

Early settlers were Mormon farmers, who pioneered irrigation in the West. Eventually, 13 dams were erected along the Snake in Wyoming and Idaho to hold back spring floodwaters and store billions of gallons of water for summertime use. Nowadays, Idaho farmers raise the nation's largest crop of spuds, the second-largest crop of sugar beets, and scores of other products, such as barley, wheat, mint, hops and seed corn.

The Snake's flows enabled pioneers to tame the plain and bring 3.6 million acres of dry desert soil into bloom. Today, agriculture nets $3 billion and enjoys clout as the state's largest industry. Water is the key to this economy, with pumpers holding 10,840 water rights and surface water irrigators holding 13,992 water rights.

Use it or lose it

From a political standpoint, it has always been state policy to fully consume the Snake to avoid water-grabs from Southern California and downstream interests in Washington and Oregon.

"We are seeking - we always have been and we always will - the ways and means of developing every drop of water that tumbles from the snow packs of the Snake River watershed," former Republican Gov. Robert Smylie told a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1955. "And when we have used that water, whether to help grow a potato or turn a turbine, or both, then, and only then, will we willingly send it flowing into the canyons below Weiser to help develop still another empire further West." Current Republican Gov. Philip Batt might well make the same speech today.

Since there seemed to be no need to conserve, until 1971 Idaho laws and policies did not even require farmers to apply for a permit to divert water from a surface water source. Permits for groundwater wells were first required in 1963, but the Idaho Legislature didn't give the Water Resources Department authority to shut down unauthorized wells until 1986. And until 1994, the Legislature did not require groundwater pumpers to measure their consumption. Full implementation of water measurement is expected to take at least five years.

Many people argue that historical water policies in Idaho caused the Snake to be overappropriated and the Snake Plain Aquifer to be mined.

But laissez-faire policies are catching up with Idaho. Says farmer McFadden: "If they approve any more pumps out here, we'll have World War III."

Reform? Out of the question

Water Resources Director Higginson says although he knew in the 1960s that groundwater pumping affected surface water flows and spring flows in the Snake River Plain, he didn't force the issue. If he had, "We'd have been run out of town on a rail."

State policy forbids mining aquifers, but does not address drought years: It banks on future wet years to replenish aquifers. But the Big Lost aquifer has apparently been pumped down so low during the drought that it will take a string of wet years for the aquifer to recover, if it ever does.

Up to last year, Higginson relied on the "full economic development" clause in the law to approve new pumps, even if they affected senior surface water users.

What's unusual - compared to other Western states - is that groundwater pumpers in Idaho have not been held to the prior appropriation doctrine, which stream irrigators must obey.

"There's two absurdities going on here," observes David Getches, a professor of water law at the University of Colorado. "Number one, a legal system that would treat groundwater and surface water as legally separate entities is absurd. Number two, you can have very efficient junior users who are pitted against very inefficient senior users."

Getches says, "The solution must be systematic. Idaho has to bring groundwater law into line with surface water law under the prior appropriation doctrine. But senior farmers don't have the right to use as much water as they want."

State Sen. Laird Noh, a Kimberly sheep rancher and chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, agrees that the state and Legislature should have been quicker to recognize that limits to development would emerge. But he says that Higginson could not have called for a moratorium in the 1960s, 1970s or even the 1980s, when people saw the water supply as limitless.

Former state Sen. John Peavey, a sheep rancher, lost an election in the 1970s after calling for a moratorium on new Snake River development. He was later re-elected, but he singles out that loss as a prime indication that the people of Idaho were not willing to plan a progressive future.

It wasn't until the 1994 legislative session that lawmakers approved a full moratorium on water development in the Snake River Plain. "We've put on the brakes," Higginson says.

Meanwhile, state authorities don't know how much water is being consumed by surface-water irrigators, spring-water users and groundwater pumpers. They can only guess.

Only in 1987 did the state launch a legal process to get a full accounting of water rights and consumption - the Snake River Basin Adjudication. And it was only to ensure that the state could deliver a minimum flow to the Idaho Power Co." s Swan Falls Dam on the Snake.

Full employent for lawyers

More than seven years later, attorneys are getting rich, the program is $30 million over budget, and not a single water rights claim has been decreed. Some 150,000 claims await resolution. It's turned into a tangle of disputes between farmers who irrigate from a river or stream and those who pump groundwater.

Legal disputes could put off the day when Idaho has a full accounting of water use until at least the next century, perhaps 2020. Observers call the program "The Idaho Water Lawyers Retirement Act."

As it stands now, the burden of proof falls on the senior farmer to pinpoint the injuring groundwater pumpers. The policy also indicates that farmers with senior water rights out of a stream may be required to drill a well instead of shutting off pumpers who are competing with them.

"The law says that an irrigator is subject to a reasonable means of diversion," says Jeff Fereday, a Boise water law attorney who represents a variety of pumping interests. "Putting in a well might be a reasonable means of diversion."

Fereday argues that pumping groundwater into a pivot sprinkler is a more efficient way to irrigate crops than sending water down a ditch. He also contends that it's not fair to shut off pumpers until their water rights have been adjudicated along with the rest. "The pumpers are entitled to due process under the law."

Moreover, Fereday does not believe that the Snake Plain Aquifer is mined or overappropriated. "The Snake Plain Aquifer is vast - there's more water in it today than there was when the wagon trains came through (in the 1860s)."

It's true that the outlet for the Snake Plain Aquifer at Thousand Springs - where spring waters issue from basalt cliffs and drop 150 feet into the Snake River - has a higher discharge today than it did in the early 1900s. But water experts say the higher flow is due to aquifer recharge from over 100 years of irrigation - that is, water seeping into the ground as it travels down hundreds of miles of irrigation canals and ditches.

Fereday argues that "we have this big nice "gimme" that nature never provided naturally."

The discharge at Thousand Springs, however, peaked in the 1950s, and it's been dropping ever since. An Idaho Department of Water Resources graph shows a bell-shaped curve. Chuck Brockway, one of the pre-eminent water experts in Idaho, notes that numerous monitoring wells throughout the Snake Plain show a sharp decline in aquifer levels since the 1950s.

Since 1987, when the latest drought began, "the rate of decline is steeper than it ever has been," Brockway says, so that "when (groundwater pumpers) say they haven't had any impact, they're wrong."

A hot issue now is which groundwater pumpers are having the greatest impact, and whom the pumpers are affecting. While research continues to pry into that complex puzzle, farmers with senior rights out of streams say they continue to get the shaft.

Steve Stuebner is a free-lance writer in Boise, Idaho.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- River purity is a new goal for all sorts of farmers

- Environmentalists and feds try to save Idaho's rivers

For more information, contact the Idaho Water Resources Department, Dick Larsen, public information officer, 1301 N. Orchard St., Boise, ID 83706 (208/327-7900) or Idaho Rivers United, Box 633, Boise, ID 83701 (800/574-7481). The nonprofit group recently published two booklets that are helpful: the 124-page Citizens' Guide to Idaho Water Policy and the 26-page Protecting Water for Idaho Rivers: A Citizen's Instream Flow Handbook. Both are $10.

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