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North of Ketchum, the Big Wood River is flowing at less than half its normal rate—a symptom of the “severe” drought gripping Blaine County.

A state-initiated hearing to determine whether groundwater rights will be curtailed around Bellevue area irrigation season has been extended by six days due to higher-than-anticipated legal involvement.

At least 65 parties will be represented by legal counsel at the hearing, which now scheduled to last two work weeks, according to Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman. Initially scheduled for five days, the proceeding will begin Monday in Boise and is scheduled to run until June 18. Sunday, June 13, will be a day off.

Spackman opened the administrative proceeding on May 4 with a notice to over 1,000 stakeholders in the Wood River and Magic valleys. The notice invited water users to testify how curtailing groundwater rights in the Bellevue Triangle, an expanse of farmland south of Bellevue and north of U.S. Highway 20, would affect them. Dozens responded.

The debate centers around groundwater and how it’s managed. South-basin growers in Shoshone, Richfield and Dietrich, many of whom irrigate their fields using water from the Little Wood River, have long alleged that Bellevue Triangle users pump too much groundwater from the Wood River aquifer system in the spring and summer, depleting flows on the Big and Little Wood rivers south of Magic.

Last month, Spackman said curtailing groundwater rights in the Bellevue Triangle area during the 2021 irrigation season would result in increased surface water flows for the holders of senior surface water rights south of Magic Reservoir.

The implications of next week’s hearing are considerable. Because much of the farmland in the Bellevue Triangle is irrigated by well water, the land could become less profitable if groundwater access is restricted.

In Idaho and much of the West, access to surface and groundwater is granted based on seniority and precipitation levels. When flows on the Big Wood River drop to the point that water can no longer be delivered effectively, growers with later established, or “junior,” water rights must shut off their diversion canals and forfeit that water to those with older, “senior” rights. Most Bellevue Triangle farmers and ranchers have groundwater rights from the 1970s and 1980s—in many cases, water rights 100 years junior to the senior surface water rights held by those south of Magic.

Next week, water users in the Bellevue area will need to defend their rights to groundwater and prove that senior surface water rights holders are not being injured by their pumping.

The hearing comes as severe drought conditions persist across a large swath of Blaine County. The effects of the drought have already shown up in the Silver Creek system, which is fed by the Wood River Valley aquifer.

“The aquifer has been depleted,” Silver Creek-area farmer Larry Schoen, a former Blaine County commissioner, told the Express. “If you drive down to Stocker Creek Bridge and look at Stocker Creek, it's the lowest that anybody alive that I know has seen it. An old timer who's lived here for 60 years said he's never seen it this low. It’s certainly the lowest by far that I have seen it in my 30 years living down here.”

The Big Wood River has also been diverted around the dry beds from Glendale Road south to benefit water users who irrigate from the Baseline Bypass canal.

“Usually that happens much later in the season,” Schoen said. “I can't remember it happening this early.”

Most of Blaine County’s northern half is in “severe” drought, according to federal monitoring by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Northeastern Blaine County, including Trail Creek Summit, is experiencing “extreme” drought—NOAA’s second-worst classification.

On Thursday, a U.S. Geological Survey gauge north of Ketchum recorded the Big Wood River at a flow rate of 230 cubic feet per second, the lowest-ever recorded flow for that date and less than half the median flow of 547 cfs.

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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