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Water Fight

Aerial view of irrigation in corn field

A politician and his administration make a decision based on a longer-term view of their state’s water needs. A farmer looks at how that decision could dry up part of his revenue in the near-term.

That scenario could play out in various states across the United States as we address water shortages, weather changes, population’s growing demands, and agriculture’s economic future.

RELATED: Clay Landry, CEO/President of WestWater Research, works with communities on water acquisition and development projects. He shared with American Farmland Owner what he does to help agricultural producers access the water that they need. Watch that conversation here. 

In this case, the dispute involves an eastern Idaho potato farmer and the administration of the state’s first-term Republican governor, Brad Little.  

Brian Murdock alleges that water curtailment could cost him $3 million. The Idaho Department of Water Resources issued an initial water curtailment of approximately 500,000 acres. Murdock questions how the issue makes sense during a year that water has been plentiful.

Burdock shared his frustrations with Fox Business about how the decision could hinder his operations. Watch that interview here. 

In May, the state department of water resources issued a curtailment order. 6,400 junior groundwater rights holders were affected.  The curtailment meant that they could no longer pump water from the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.

Background from Idaho State University states that the aquifer covers an area that is approximately 28,000 square kilometers. It includes this:

Human activity has had a tremendous impact on the water balance of the eastern aquifer. About sixty percent of total recharge to the aquifer is derived from irrigation with surface water. Most groundwater still leaves the aquifer via springs and seepage losses in two major upper basin reaches, although pumping withdrawals contribute significantly to the aquifer's total losses.”

Longstanding state policy dictates water priority access for “senior” and “junior” groundwater rights holders.

That status is determined by when the rightsholder first sought water access.

The Idaho Department of Water Resources provides this information:

“A priority date is the date the water right was established. How this date is determined is described in the section below. The priority date is important because the priority date determines who gets water when there is a shortage. If there is not enough to satisfy all of the water rights, then the oldest (or senior) water rights are satisfied first and so on in order until there is no water left. It is the new (or junior) water rights that do not get water when there is not enough to satisfy all the water rights.”

Governor Little sent out a statement in May regarding property owners like Murdock and others in six groundwater districts who would be part of the curtailment order for failing to follow the state’s water mitigation plans.

“Idaho must maintain our water sovereignty and not turn out like other western states in the Colorado River Basin, such as California, where the federal government stepped in to supersede the state’s control of its water,” Little said in the statement.

“We absolutely must conserve water for future generations, which is why the Legislature and I championed half a billion dollars in historic investments in recent years to modernize water infrastructure statewide.”

RELATED: The Idaho Capitol Sun detailed the May water curtailment order, reaction for various entities involved, and the history of water use. Read that here. 

But a month of discussions led to a temporary deal that ends the water curtailment order. Thursday, the parties announced the agreement. Users will adhere to water use guidelines established in a 2015 mitigation plan while state leaders look for a more permanent solution to balance water demands by rights holders with the available supply.


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