Idaho farms face loss of water use

The Baltimore Sun

BOISE, Idaho -- Idaho Water Resources Director David Tuthill issued orders Friday to farmers, food processors, dairies and 13 cities in six counties to shut off their water pumps July 6.

The order, if carried out, would dry up 16,600 acres of farmland planted in crops including corn, sugar beets, potatoes and hay.

Tuthill issued the curtailment order under the state's first-come, first-served water law to meet the demands of two spring-fed fish producers with older, senior rights.

The financial impact of drying up so much farmland in the middle of the season would be dire, said Tim Deeg, a farmer and president of the Idaho Groundwater Appropriators, which represents the groundwater users who would be cut off.

"The economic impact to these industries and municipalities will have a ripple effect in the tens of millions of dollars," Deeg said.

But the senior users, who under state law have the priority right to the water, have been suffering for years, said Randy MacMillan, vice president of Clear Springs Foods in Buhl, Idaho.

The trout producer has lost more than $8 million in the past five years in only one of two trout farms. Other senior users in the area, including Blue Lakes Trout Farm, and some farms that irrigate with surface water, also have suffered, MacMillan said.

For his company, reversing the spring depletion is a matter of survival.

"Clear Springs really understands the damage this causes people, because we have been damaged for a long, long time," he said.

The groundwater users have not been able to come up with sufficient mitigation to meet what Tuthill determined in his order is due to the senior users.

If the groundwater users come up with more water or other alternatives, Tuthill could call off the pump shut-off.

"Curtailment is a last resort, but we are obligated under Idaho law to follow through with enforcement when mitigation is not provided," Tuthill said. "We are more interested in water solutions than water confrontations."

He said last week that he expected people to follow the law and shut off their pumps on the deadline. But he added he was prepared to get help from county sheriffs and state police if necessary.

MacMillan blamed Tuthill for making the potential curtailment even more harmful by delaying the order until after farmers planted their crops.

Deeg said groundwater users have been trying in vain to get a hearing on the original curtailment order issued in 2005.

They contend that the calls for water from Clear Springs and Blue Lakes are invalid.

Tuthill said he was not required by law to call a hearing before he shut off junior users.

Holding a hearing on the use is complicated and will take time, he said.

That frustrates Deeg and the farmers facing losing their water.

"While they prepare to discuss an issue we have all known about since 2005, Idaho farmers, their families, and their communities face economic harm reminiscent of the Dust Bowl," Deeg said.

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