It was a formal banquet held at the Red Lion Riverside ballroom in the early 1980s. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling and on each of the rounded tables were large glass goblets. I remember sitting there watching the white-jacketed waiter as he poured whole milk into my goblet. Farmers and ranchers were here to discuss the limitless potential of agribusiness in Idaho. Nobody worried then about water for farming or talked about water conservation. Water per farmable acre cost about $50, with canal use and pumping costs. It seemed a non-issue. So much so that in 1981, the state bequeathed 2,081 irrigation water permits, no problem. Most of us didn’t know that the United States Geological Survey was starting to show a decline in the Rocky Mountain snowpack. Today, the snowpack is 20 percent less than in the early ’80s, with an uncertain future due to warming temperatures. All of which means less run-off water for Idaho rivers.
Now, fast forward to another agribusiness banquet, circa 2016. This time the celebration is held in the old American Legion Hall. The venue to be sure is less ostentatious, but the mood in this crowd is also different. The speaker from the state Water Resource Board has come to talk to us about water curtailment. Life’s about to change. All surface water used for commercial or business purposes, including and especially agriculture, will now need a gauge to monitor water usage. Everyone seems contemplative and sober amidst the barrage of statistics about acre-feet and costs, the talk about the necessity of recharge and storage for our groundwater resources. The farming business needs to temper thoughts of growth, with concern for water management and sustainability.
A few attempt to mount a defense, a way to maintain the way we do things here in rural Idaho, but still keep our precious water from disappearing downstream to Oregon and Washington. “We just need to build a dam,” says a man with a handlebar moustache. “What could cement cost anyway?” Another man wearing a farmer’s cap says, “The canal should be lined. We’re losing surface water in the gravel-bedded canal.” Then the blaming begins: “I tried to tell the city, we could have piped water from the river in the Foothills, but no, they didn’t want anything to change. And now we have this mess.”
I shift uncomfortably in my metal folding chair. It’s apparent to me that we do need to modify water usage and irrigation practices. That’s what the speaker at the meeting asked of us. But I wondered if there was a subtext to his speech, something he hadn’t consciously considered, the thought that we needed to change not only our behaviors, but our attitudes. Pulling back from a tradition, the 200-year-old Manifest Destiny template that encouraged the unbridled development of the West and the exploitation of its resources may be necessary, but for some of us at least, it will not be easy.
Diana Hooley, of Hammett, is a teacher and writer.