Severe drought conditions across a wide swath of Blaine County have already led to crop and pasture loss, farmers and ranchers are reporting—and dry conditions in the Wood River Valley are more favorable for a wildfire.

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, Blaine County’s drought impact area, which extends from Hunter Creek Summit in the Boulder Mountains south to Timmerman Junction, falls under the D-2 category, the third out of five levels. Other sections of Blaine County, including Picabo and Carey, remain under “moderate” drought conditions, the U.S. Drought Monitor shows.

On Monday, the U.S. National Weather Service in Pocatello issued a red flag warning for the Sawtooth National Forest and surrounding vicinity.

“Critical fire conditions are occurring now, or will shortly,” the warning stated.

In the Wood River Valley, it’s not just the threat of wildfires that has farmers and conservationists worried.

Rocky Sherbine, a cattle rancher operating south of Bellevue, told the Express that his cows currently grazing on public BLM land will probably need to come off the range “on the early side” due to the drought.

“We have to haul out water to them about every day. There’s just no water for them to drink,” he said. “The grass will be gone soon, and I’m having a heck of a problem with grasshoppers eating up all of my grass.”

Sherbine attributed the proliferation of grasshoppers to dry spring and summer conditions. A few of his groundwater wells will help keep pastures irrigated once the cows come in for the season, he said, but the recent curtailment of his surface water rights will mean almost certain pasture loss in areas the wells can’t reach.

“We’ve just about lost all of our river water. That’s going to hurt,” he said. “Many parts [of pasture] are just going to go dry this year.”

District 37 Watermaster Kevin Lakey has already had to shut off irrigation canals across the entire district, which spans from Galena Summit to Timmerman Junction, due to low flows in the Big Wood River.

“As far as deliverable water, we’ve shut off about half of it, and this morning we probably shut off an additional 25 percent,” he said Tuesday.

Irrigation canals that divert water from the Big Wood River are generally shut off or turned down when the river gets down to around 350-400 cubic feet per second, he said. On Monday, a U.S. Geological Survey gauge near Lions Park in Hailey recorded a flow rate of 239 cfs—half the median flow for that date.

Lakey’s main job is to deliver water to farmers and ranchers from the Big Wood River to the District 45 canal system according to Idaho water law. When river flows take a nosedive, water rights are cut sequentially—since water rights in Idaho operate under a seniority system, those with later-established, or junior, water rights must shut off their diversion canals and send that water to senior water right holders.

Wood River Land Trust Executive Director Scott Boettger broke down the process in simple terms. When pioneers first ventured out to the Wood River Valley, he said, they attempted to grow crops they’d grown in the Midwest—corn, for instance—and after a number of failures, learned how to divert water out of the river and irrigate their fields using hand-dug ditches.

“Imagine the first person who diverted water as the No. 1 water right holder. As soon as he watered his field, any extra water would go downstream to the second water right holder,” he said. “If a junior user upstream pulled too much water from the river, the No. 1 water right holder would need to make a call— ‘Hey, you’ve got to shut your water off.’”

Bette Gower, secretary of Wood River Valley Irrigation District No. 45, said surface water users with more junior rights in the northern section of the Bellevue Triangle have already been hit by the drought. On July 5, the district made two delivery cuts, she said, and two more are expected this month and next. The Irrigation District’s last significant early shutoff date occurred on July 7, 2013, one month before the Beaver Creek Fire ignited.

“We’re dealing with the drought in relatively the same way as we did in 2013,” Gower said. “Everyone had to look at the low snowpack and decide what they were going to plant, what they were going to be watering.”

With curtailment of junior water rights in the Wood River Valley, many farmers and ranchers in the Bellevue Triangle have been turning to supplemental groundwater wells, she said.

According to Mark Davidson, director of conservation initiatives at The Nature Conservancy, most private wells in the valley were installed after the 1940s with advances in electrical engineering.

“You have this interesting situation in which the most junior groundwater rights are 100 years junior to the most senior surface water rights south of Magic Reservoir,” he said.

David Stephenson, manager of the Big Wood Canal Co. and American Falls Reservoir District No. 2, said his canal company will shut off Magic Reservoir a month early due to low water reserves. That means the dam will shut down the third week of August rather than the last week of September when irrigation season usually wraps up. (A full, lucrative season would run from April to October, he said.)

“When the pond’s empty, it’s empty,” Stephenson said. “Snowpack from the winter of 2018 carried us through last summer and got us this far. But if we don’t get a good winter next year, things will get a lot worse.”

To ride out the drought, many farmers south of Magic Reservoir have switched to growing early-season grains. Others are facing dismal crop yields, he said.

“Instead of getting four cuttings of alfalfa, farmers are getting maybe two. And a lot of potatoes were not planted due to the [drought] forecast, which translates into lost revenue,” Stephenson said.

When farmers above Magic Reservoir turn to groundwater for irrigation, surface water users in Shoshone, Richfield and Dietrich can experience dwindling canal flows.       

“As junior [surface] water users in the Bellevue Triangle turn their pumps on, that’s when you start to see an impact to downstream delivery with less water available to senior users south of Magic,” Davidson said. “Essentially, groundwater pumpers have been allowed to continue pumping while senior surface rights are being cut. It’s a very sensitive issue—in bad water years, it can precipitate a basinwide fight.”

Davidson said excessive groundwater pumping has the effect of depleting the Wood River Valley aquifer, which in turn has “stairstepping” impacts on flows on Silver Creek and the Big Wood River below Bellevue.

Larry Schoen, a former county commissioner and hay producer operating near Silver Creek, said a combination of dry surface conditions and a dropping water table will cut his crop yields in half.

“Some growers on the Camas Prairie won’t even have a harvest this year,” he said. “And irrigators without groundwater rights will be some of the hardest hit in our basin.”

Schoen said grain farmers will need “much more” water to finish out the season and hay farmers, like himself, can only hope to complete second and third hay cuttings.

Davidson said one thing people in the valley don’t often stop to think about is the intricate connection between the north valley, south valley and jurisdictions below Magic Reservoir.

“We’re all connected,” he said. “Water users in Sun Valley are connected to water users in Gooding, Idaho, which seems like worlds apart from each other.”

This is the first part of a three-part series on the drought outlook this summer. The next installment will explore water conservation solutions and strategies to address trout stranding.

This story has been updated to better reflect a quotation from Larry Schoen. 

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