21-07-14 Bellevue Triangle Map.jpg

Irrigators in the Bellevue Triangle, outlined here in yellow, were given the green light to resume groundwater pumping under a state order issued last Thursday. The authorization, however, came with several conditions, one of which is that the irrigators must send over more than 800 million gallons of water to downstream growers in Lincoln County.

Farmers and ranchers in the Bellevue Triangle can once again irrigate their fields with groundwater on the condition that they fairly compensate growers along Silver Creek and the Little Wood River for the latter group’s financial losses incurred this summer as a result of groundwater pumping, the Idaho Department of Water Resources ruled last week.

The Triangle—a 23,000-acre farming district south of Bellevue—is home to about 140 producers who use groundwater to irrigate their fields after Big Wood River flows drop.

Last Thursday, groundwater users operating within the Triangle received a letter from the Idaho Department of Water Resources informing them that a settlement plan authored by the Wood River Valley’s two groundwater districts—the Galena and South Valley Groundwater Districts—had been approved by the department’s director, Gary Spackman.

The districts’ plan, formalized in a Thursday order, reverses a freeze on groundwater pumping that Spackman set on July 1 to protect downstream irrigators in Shoshone, Dietrich and Richfield who rely on surface flows from Silver Creek and the Little Wood River.

It also specifies three ways in which Bellevue Triangle groundwater users should help mitigate injury to the south-basin senior surface water users in Lincoln County. To avoid having their groundwater rights curtailed again, the Bellevue users will need to adhere to the following conditions:

l Maintaining constant flows of 23 cubic feet per second on the Little Wood River southeast of Richfield.

l Securing and distributing 2,500 acre-feet of storage water—about 815 million gallons total— to the downstream surface water users in Richfield, Dietrich and Shoshone via the Milner-Gooding Canal.

l Ending all groundwater pumping on Aug. 15.

Per the settlement agreement, Bellevue Triangle groundwater users should “reimburse the full cost of 1,000 acre-feet of storage water already acquired by the senior surface water users during the 2021 irrigation season and acquire an additional 1,500 acre-feet of storage water … and deliver it to senior surface water users upon request.”

The groundwater users are now responsible for acquiring storage water from the Snake River or the American Falls Reservoir and delivering it downstream via the Milner-Gooding Canal. Their ability to continue pumping groundwater rests upon their compliance with the agreement’s three main terms, Spackman said.

At press time Tuesday, it was unclear how much that much storage water would cost at current rates.

On Friday, Gov. Brad Little praised the truce between Bellevue growers and Lincoln County growers as “historic” and “crop-saving.”

“This settlement is an important first step and sets the stage for a long-term solution in the Wood River area. I appreciate the efforts by the surface and ground water users to come to a resolution that protects senior water rights while allowing some groundwater pumpers the ability to provide valuable crops,” Gov. Little said in a statement. “I would also like to thank [Spackman] and his team for their expertise and genuine desire to reach a meaningful resolution. This kind of coming together to face our challenges head on—especially during an extreme drought year—is what Idahoans do.”

Historically, farmers operating in the Bellevue Triangle district have used supplemental groundwater wells to keep irrigating their fields after canal water from the Big Wood River is shut off or turned down in drought conditions. Growers south of Timmerman Hill, however, have not had the same opportunity due to limited groundwater sources.

Complicating the situation, irrigators in Lincoln County hold surface water rights up to 100 years older than the groundwater rights held by irrigators in the Bellevue Triangle, but are shut off earlier than their north-basin counterparts.

A final term in the agreement instructs both the Bellevue users and south-basin surface water users to work together to develop a comprehensive groundwater management plan for the Big Wood River Basin and submit it to Spackman by December. The hope is that the entire basin will reach conjunctive management—a practice in which groundwater, river water and spring-fed streams are considered one collective source and managed accordingly—by the end of the year.

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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