Magic Reservoir in southern Blaine County is slowly being refilled following completion of repairs in mid-December of a leaky hydraulic oil line at the Magic Dam hydroelectric plant.
But whether the Big Wood Canal Co., which holds water rights for irrigation from reserves held in the reservoir, will be able to save enough water for the 2013 crop season remains unknown.
Currently, with a water level of about 16,000 acre-feet, the reservoir is at less than 10 percent of its maximum capacity of 191,000 acre-feet.
The current level is also well below the 50,000-70,000 acre-feet that the canal company prefers to have saved at the end of an irrigation season for carryover into the next year.
“That’s what we kind of like to have as an insurance policy, but we did end up dumping a bunch of it,” said canal company board Chair Carl Pendleton, a resident of Shoshone.
But Pendleton said abundant snowfall so far this winter in the Big Wood River drainage area to the north makes him hopeful that there will be abundant runoff in the spring.
“It’s too early to tell, but so far it looks good,” he said. “But we really won’t know until March at the earliest. We just need the snowpack and everything will be OK.”
The reservoir was holding 54,000 acre-feet when the canal company began releasing water in late October. Originally, the company planned a release of only about 20,000 acre-feet so that dry repairs could be made on the hydraulic oil line, but ended up releasing twice that amount.
Pendleton explained that company managers thought they were finished releasing water in mid-November, when the water level was dropped to 35,000 acre-feet, but learned later that month that they would have to release even more water for the safety of crews working on the repair.
“It became obvious we were risking machinery and men,” Pendleton said. “It’s not worth hurting someone for water.”
The water release followed an order by Blaine County 5th District Judge Robert Elgee on Oct. 23, as part of a lawsuit filed against the canal company by Magic Reservoir Hydroelectric, a subsidiary of J.R. Simplot Co. and the owner of the hydroelectric plant below Magic Dam.
Magic Reservoir Hydroelectric argued that it faced fines of up to $32,500 per day if repairs were not made and contaminated soil were not removed from the area of the leak.
The leaking fluid was Chevron Clarity synthetic hydraulic oil, which is generally considered safer environmentally than nonsythetic petroleum-based hydraulic fluids. Chevron’s material safety data sheet on the chemical states that it is synthesized from mineral oil, is biodegradable, is noncarcinogenic, is nontoxic and at low concentrations is not harmful to fish and other aquatic animals.
Nonetheless, EPA considers the chemical a pollutant and requires that releases into the environment be remediated.
“I think the whole thing by definition of EPA was that it was a spill and you had to clean it up,” Pendleton said. “I can’t maybe fault their reasoning, but given the impact to our water users, I don’t think it had to be accelerated so quickly.”
According to court documents, the Big Wood Canal Co. was seeking other remedies to resolve the leak, such as building a coffer dam around the area and draining only that portion down so that repairs could be made without lowering the entire reservoir.
Court documents further state that Magic Reservoir Hydroelectric had discontinued use of the leaky hydraulic line before repairs were made and that the company had isolated the leak area with a heavy tarp and sandbags and previously cleaned up any oil that had leaked into the reservoir.
Terry Smith: email@example.com