Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Idaho water chief: shutoffs will be enforced

Idaho Idaho Water Resources Director David Tuthill said Tuesday he is prepared to use sheriffs or Idaho State Police officers if necessary to shut off pumps irrigating 22,000 acres of crops in the Magic Valley this week.

Food processing plants, 13 cities and dozens of dairies also would lose access to groundwater under Tuthill’s order to meet the demand of two trout producers. Overall, the curtailment could directly cost Idaho’s economy more than $28 million this year, based on Tuthill’s estimate.

Tuthill told the Legislature’s interim natural resources committee Tuesday he still hoped to avoid what would be the largest curtailment of water rights in the state’s history. But talks Friday between groundwater users and the two fish companies failed to bridge their differences over when and how to hold a hearing based on the state’s first-come, first-served water laws.

“We have no desire to curtail, but will do so if required by state law,” Tuthill said.

If Tuthill goes ahead with the curtailment, he’s confident that cities, most businesses and farmers will follow the law. Farmers would get a letter ordering them to shut off their pumps by a cutoff date.

After that, the state has remote monitoring technology to see who is not complying. Farmers would face a $300-per-acre fine for ignoring Tuthill’s order. “We aren’t looking for confrontations in people’s back yards,” Tuthill said. But the state has called in county sheriffs in the past to enforce water laws and could even call in the Idaho State Police, Tuthill said. “This is not something, I suspect, where we bring out the National Guard,” Tuthill said.

In times of drought, users with newer, junior rights are forced to stop using water. This is routine among competing surface water users but has never been carried out against groundwater users.

Shutting down pumps in the middle of the growing season would be the worst-case scenario in the continuing water dispute between groundwater users and surface water users who depend on water from the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer. The aquifer is an underground water source the size of Lake Erie that spreads from Ashton west to King Hill…

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