Water recharge effort could break last year's record

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TWIN FALLS, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) As water crawls down the Milner-Gooding Canal, it’s heading for a recharge site.

The water is coming from a reservoir upstream and will eventually be part of the Snake River Plain Aquifor.

“Given the wet year last year, those reservoir’s really didn’t go down much at all,” said Wesley Hipke, a recharge project manager for the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

Hipke said most of the reservoirs are about 80 percent or more full. Normally this time of year he said it’s around 30 percent or less. So with the help of canal companies and irrigation districts across southern and eastern Idaho, they have been able to put some of that water back into the ground.

“There’s a lot of partners that are the reason that we’ve had record years and we’ll probably have a record year this year,” Hipke said. “Because of the work that they’ve done.”

So far IDWR and its partners have been able to recharge more than 200,000 acre-feet of water into the aquifer this winter.

“To kind of put that in perspective normally at this time in the past we’ve been around 40,000. So we’re way ahead of the game,” Hipke said.

IDWR’s goal is 250,000 acre-feet per year. Last year they were able to pump around 317,000 acre-feet into the ground. This year Hipke thinks they can recharge 360,000 acre-feet.

“That is a projection, we’ll have to see what Mother Nature does,” Hipke said.

What Mother Nature did last year was help take a step towards replenishing the aquifer, which had been over drafted for decades.

“We had given out more water rights than there was actually water,” said Roger Chase, the chair of the water resource board.

Chase said about six years ago everybody involved in agriculture in the state started addressing the problem. From farmers to canal companies and cities to the state government.

“Each side had to give a little bit,” Chase said.

The solution was a two-pronged approach: Recharge as much excess water as they could, limit some water use as well. The result would hopefully be a stabilization of the aquifer.

The alternative would be running out so low on ground water that southern Idaho would come to an economic halt.

“It would have hurt everybody in Idaho,” Chase said.

Some farmers would have to grow less because they would have less water. It also went into cities. Because Idaho’s water rights are based off of a kind of first-come-first-serve basis. The older water rights get the priority over the junior ones.

A lot of cities in southern Idaho have a more junior water right.

“That’s people’s drinking water,” Hipke said. “So it really affects all aspects of growth.”

That brought us to the solution. Junior farmers began seeing limits on ground water use.

Farmer’s like Jeff Hunt. Who is spending thousands of dollars now to re-do his water infrastructure so he can use canal water instead of well water.

“It kind of pinched us,” Hunt said. “But I understand why it is and why it had to happen that way.”

Hunt wasn’t thrilled when the judge ruled about his water use. After all it limited his farm. He knows the importance of water in the state and like seeing what agriculture workers are doing to put some water back.

“The recharge really is a good thing,” Hunt said. “We’ve got to get some more water back down in the aquifer and I think the canal companies have been great getting that water during the winter in the offseason.”

Water that would otherwise flow right out of the state.

So years like this help the cause of water conservation. A goal water officials say most people are behind.

“Our guys chose to find a way to make it succeed and with a sacrifice for some of the guys,” Chase said. “I really tip my hat off to the agriculture community for finding a way to make it succeed.”

Even with this year’s recharge likely exceeding goals. Mother Nature could still lend southern Idaho a hand.

“A big heavy snow pack would be awesome,” Hipke said.

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