When it comes to water, it’s no secret to Idahoans that we have it better off than many of our Western neighbors.
Idaho is an arid state, greatly aided by snowpack that accumulates in our rugged, high-altitude interior and the largely healthy rivers and streams that flow from it.
Scientists predict that Idaho summers will continue to grow hotter, snowpack runoff will come earlier and streams will grow warmer. All this puts pressure on our irreplaceable rivers and streams.
In a Feb. 13 Guest Opinion, Speaker of the House Scott Bedke reminded us that Idaho’s economy relies heavily on irrigated agriculture. True enough. However, the speaker neglected to mention several key water uses that also deserve attention.
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All Idahoans rely on clean drinking water. We hold a constitutional right to fish. Our economy benefits when people travel from all over the world for Idaho’s world-class angling and boating.
Idaho is entering a new era of water management with its growing aquifer recharge program. Significant care will be required to ensure Idaho’s aquifers stay clean and its rivers are still allowed to act as rivers in the face of this new stress.
Aquifer recharge is basically a form of underground water storage. In short, it’s the process of diverting water from rivers and placing it in the ground so that it can be used at a later time. It has been conducted in Idaho on a comparatively small scale for decades. And it has happened via canal and ditch leakage as long as people have been using canals and ditches to transport water.
Moving forward, the state of Idaho hopes to recharge 250,000 acre-feet of water annually, while canal companies and water districts hope to recharge another 240,000 acre-feet. That’s equivalent to almost two full Lucky Peak Reservoirs, and it is upward of 10 times the recharge historically done in Idaho.
Recharge is not necessarily a bad idea. But if not done properly, it could have bad consequences.
The Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer is the only source of drinking water for more than 300,000 Idahoans. Ensuring this aquifer remains clean enough to provide drinking water must be a priority. Putting polluted water into it would be a disaster.
Virtually all of the recharge water will come from the Snake River and its upper tributaries. Most recharge will occur in late winter/early spring, siphoning springtime high flows necessary to a river’s ecological health. Done wrong, the removal of this amount of water could harm our state’s fisheries and make the Snake River even more polluted than it already is.
To give Idaho’s beloved rivers a fighting chance, the recharge projects must occur only at certain river flows and at certain times of year, even if that means some water desired for recharge is left in the river instead. And the recharged water must be clean enough that it will not pollute groundwater.
All Idahoans are water users. And our collective interests in water must be protected as Idaho plans its water future.
Marie Callaway Kellner is the Idaho Conservation League’s water associate.