Magic Valley pumpers get a water reprieve

Wells won’t be shut off in March; lawmakers say Idaho needs to solve a larger problem.

(TWIN FALLS) TIMES-NEWSFebruary 28, 2014 

Fish

Rangen’s Hagerman fish farm at the headwaters of Billingsley Creek has made a call on its senior water rights, which could curtail groundwater access on 157,000 acres in the Magic Valley.

ASHLEY SMITH, TIMES-NEWS

  • ABOUT RANGEN’S WATER CALL

    Rangen, which opened in 1925 and was incorporated in 1935, owns and operates a fish research and rearing facility near Thousand Springs. It contracts with Idaho Power to raise fish to be stocked in the Snake River and American Falls Reservoir.

    Rangen has five water rights — from 1884, 1908, 1957, 1962 and 1977 — each for a different water amount and purpose. At issue now is its 1962 right, for 48.54 cubic feet per second (cfs).

    In 1966, Rangen’s flow of spring water pouring from the Snake River Canyon averaged 50.7 cfs. In 2012, it was 14.6 cfs.

    The company made its first water call in September 2003, but results from a state modeling device indicated no appreciable water would reach Rangen in a proposed curtailment order. In December 2011, after the Department of Water Resources updated its modeling device, Rangen filed another call, leading to several hearings and a stay on well closures.

Gary Spackman had ordered groundwater access across 157,000 acres in the Magic Valley to be restricted March 14 so a Hagerman fish farm could get more water from canyon springs.

The order from the director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) would have affected more than 2,300 water-right holders, including 14 cities, five school districts, irrigators, dairies, Jerome Cheese Co. and Glanbia Foods. It would have shut off 3,000 cubic feet per second of water to push 9 cubic feet per second to the spring that supplies the Rangen fish farm’s water.

But a new ruling, issued late Feb. 21, grants a motion to delay that curtailment order after the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators (IGWA) submitted a plan to make up for Rangen’s loss.

Rangen will not protest the stay, said Fritz Haemmerle, the company’s water attorney.

Instead, Haemmerle said, the company will prepare for state hearings March 17 and 18 on IGWA’s mitigation plan, which he said lacks specifics.

“We’ll definitely challenge it,” he said.

Although the stay is to give the state enough time to consider IGWA’s mitigation plan, it lasts through the coming irrigation season should proceedings be delayed in the legal process, said Mat Weaver, deputy IDWR director. The curtailment would have been phased in over five years.

In his stay order, Spackman wrote that the process must be expedited because shutting off wells would do irreparable harm to IGWA and the Magic Valley economy.

“If the curtailment order is not lifted until IGWA’s mitigation plan is approved, the damage to these businesses and community will have already occurred and will not be able to be undone,” he wrote.

BIGGER SOLUTIONS NEEDED

Rangen’s call is a renewal of an effort the company started 10 years ago, and the latest front in decades of water fights influenced by fluctuations in Idaho’s natural resources, changes to farming practices and advances in how the state manages groundwater and surface rights.

In Idaho’s “first in time, first in right” system, water users with newer rights cannot infringe on a water user with an older right. Parties in water disputes range from farmers to municipalities; last week, a group of attorneys representing 14 cities organized to fight Rangen’s call and future calls that threaten their water rights.

While preventing well shutoffs is important to Idaho’s economy, state leaders should be thinking long-term, said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

“The Rangen call is a symptom … of a declining aquifer and the state will step up in meaningful ways to stabilize the water aquifer,” Bedke said.

Building dams to create new reservoirs is impossible, Bedke said, which means more attention is needed to putting as much water into underground aquifers.

Bedke said he’s worked with lawmakers on a bill to would use some of the state’s cigarette tax — currently dedicated to pay off bonds used to renovate the Capitol — to fund water-management projects.

The bond payments end July 1, Bedke said, which means there will be $5 million annually freed up.

“If we get our way, the state will arguably like never before take proactive steps to stabilize the aquifer,” Bedke said. “We have ongoing funds to help pay for water management.”

The fund is different than the water-management plan lawmakers and officials unveiled several years ago. In 2008, water officials touted a Comprehensive Aquifer Management Plan to put $100 million into recharging and stabilizing the Lake Erie-sized aquifer under south-central and south-eastern Idaho. The plan, however, didn’t get full funding due to the economic downturn. Only portions were implemented.

Bedke said his bill is bigger than the earlier aquifer plan. The management fund will be used for projects across the state.

The Magic Valley “has been on the forefront, but these issues are in the future of (the) Treasure Valley and northern areas,” Bedke said.

The cigarette tax was designed to go to economic development, and water management is one of the state’s most important economic investments, said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome and co-chairwoman on the state’s budget committee.

“If the Magic Valley dries up, the whole state dries up,” she said.

ALSO A FACTOR: FINANCES

In Hagerman, IGWA has been trying for 1 1/2 years to buy Rangen’s facility and water right. But the two are “far apart” on price, said Lynn Tominaga, IGWA’s executive director.

The association bought three fish farms in the Hagerman Valley two years ago for $33 million to prevent calls and curtailments. It lets third parties run those hatcheries — Clear Lakes, Blue Lakes and Rim View — as long as they don’t make a call against the groundwater users, he said. The groundwater districts pay up to $20 an acre to finance the mitigation, up from “$1 to $2 at the most” before.

But buying Rangen won’t resolve the big issue. People like Wendell dairyman Arie Roeloffs say Hagerman Valley fish farms are using water calls to force IGWA and other groups to bail them out of trouble: rising costs for trout feed plus a water shortage and a dip in trout prices caused by the recession.

“It is just a matter of trying to cash out on that little fish hatchery,” Roeloffs said. “They definitely don’t want to take care of the dairy industry anymore.“

Aquarius Aquaculture, another Hagerman fish farm, filed a Feb. 12 call for 22.64 cfs of water on three rights — two from 1971 and one from 1969. Aquarius water from Hidden Springs is down 50 percent, wrote Vice President David Huff. He called upon the state to “do whatever necessary” to get the fish farm its water

Contrary to Roeloffs’ contention, Huff said, Aquarius’ fish farm is not for sale. Nor does Rangen want out of the fish business, Haemmerle said.

What’s important is proper management of the aquifer, Huff said. Diminished Snake River Canyon springs are a bellwether of the depletions that threaten the Magic Valley economy, regardless of water calls coming from Hagerman

“If you just allow endless development, eventually everyone that relies on water is in jeopardy of losing that resource. The springs see the effect of diminishing water first,” he said.

Rangen’s flow has been down 85 percent for years, said Wayne Courtney, the company’s executive vice president. Its trout-rearing channels are empty, he said, and business is bad.

While the first in time, first in right doctrine is “harsh,” Haemmerle said, Rangen officials are not “insensitive” to the impact the curtailment would have. Nor is the company blind to how such an action would affect its other businesses and reputation overall.

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