A state-initiated proceeding to reevaluate how water rights are administered in the Wood River Valley will proceed despite challenges from Sun Valley Co. and the cities of Bellevue and Hailey, as well as several local water districts.
The Idaho Department of Water Resources scheduled a five-day hearing in Boise from June 7-11 to help state officials determine whether groundwater rights within local Water Districts 37 and 37B, particularly within the Bellevue Triangle—a patch of farmland south of Bellevue and north of U.S. Highway 20—should be cut this summer.
IDWR Director Gary Spackman initiated the administrative proceeding on May 4 with a notice to over 1,000 stakeholders in the Wood River and Magic valleys, inviting water users to testify on how possible groundwater curtailments in the Bellevue Triangle this summer would affect them.
Upstream stakeholders that received the notice included Sun Valley Co., Water District 37-B Groundwater Association, Sun Valley Water and Sewer District and the cities of Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue. Downstream stakeholders included surface water users south of Magic Reservoir, notably the Big Wood Canal Co., the Big Wood and Little Wood Water Users Association and the city of Gooding.
Spackman said in his May 4 notice that curtailing groundwater rights in the Bellevue Triangle this summer would boost canal flows for growers near Silver Creek and its tributaries amid this year’s ongoing drought conditions. The hearing in Boise next month, he said, will “decide whether the withdrawal of water from groundwater wells in the Wood River Valley south of Bellevue … would affect the use of senior surface water rights on Silver Creek and its tributaries during the 2021 irrigation season.”
In Idaho and much of the West, access to surface and groundwater is granted based on seniority. Growers with later-established, or “junior,” water rights must shut off their diversion canals and forfeit that water to those with senior water rights after flows on the Big Wood River drop to the point where water can no longer be delivered effectively.
The problem, according to many farmers and ranchers operating south of Magic Reservoir, is that upstream users in the Bellevue Triangle are allowed to pump too much water from the river. Compounding the situation is the fact that most Bellevue Triangle growers have groundwater rights 100 years junior to the senior surface water rights held by those in Shoshone, Richfield and Dietrich.
With severe-to-extreme drought conditions already present across most of Blaine County, unusually early shutoff dates, water shortages and pasture loss are due to repeat this summer.
As of Tuesday morning, the Wood River Valley had received 14.8 inches of precipitation since Oct. 1—about 63% of average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The NRCS reported the same exact precipitation total for May 25, 2020, putting this water year on a nearly identical trajectory to last year’s. Normally, the valley will have recorded about 24 inches of accumulated precipitation in late May.
On Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey’s gauge near Lions Park in Hailey recorded a flow rate of 401 cubic feet per second--about a quarter of average, according to records kept over 105 years.
On May 13, the South Valley Ground Water District filed a motion asking Spackman to dismiss his administrative proceeding. Sun Valley Co. followed suit on May 14 with a motion to dismiss, and the city of Bellevue also filed a motion that same day asking Spackman to postpone the five-day hearing.
Chris Bromley, attorney for Sun Valley Co., said in his May 14 motion to dismiss that Spackman’s May 4 notice “violated SVC’s rights to due process” because it was mailed three days late.
“Noticing a schedule of this nature, with thirty days to prepare, is wholly inadequate,” Bromley stated. “SVC will have a mere fourteen days to serve discovery and receive answers … in order to prepare for an extremely complex water delivery case.”
Bromley also argued that Spackman could not set a hearing because he had not received an “adverse claim” to initiate the proceeding, as required by state law.
In her motion to postpone the hearing, Bellevue city attorney Candace McHugh seconded Bromley’s concerns about Spackman’s delayed noticing process.
“This rushed scheduled certainly seems to simply give lip service to a full and fair opportunity for parties to defend their water rights and use,” she wrote.
Numerous stakeholders joined in and supported the motions filed by Sun Valley Co. and Bellevue, including the Sun Valley Water and Sewer District and the city of Pocatello on May 20 and the city of Hailey on May 21. Spackman issued an order on May 22 denying those three motions, however, meaning the hearing will continue as planned.
“This administrative proceeding satisfies due process requirements,” he wrote.