500,000 Acres of Idaho Farmland Set to Lose Water on Orders from Governor’s Office


Idaho has issued sudden water curtailment orders over half a million acres of farmland. Locals say the orders took them by surprise and will devastate agriculture in the region.

“That appears to be the plan,” Frank VanderSloot, executive chairman at Melaleuca, told East Idaho News. “To really, over time or immediately, shut off agriculture in this area.”

The curtailment order impacts junior water rights holders whose claims date back to December 1953. About 6400 water rights holders are affected.

“The timing on this is horrible,” Mr. VanderSloot said, explaining that most farmers have already planted their crops. Planting potatoes costs $2,000-$3,000 per acre. “Now they have to shut down the wells and give up that investment. The land is mortgaged, the potato crops are mortgaged. Everything is financed. They will basically lose their farms if they turn their water off.”

Water curtailment tags have been placed on farmers’ water pumps throughout the state. Photo courtesy Jimi Burtenshaw

Josie Moss and her family are ranchers in Jefferson County.

“For us, we irrigate about 4800 acres and the water curtailment order would shut off all but 140 acres of our water. This will cause our farm significant financial damage — likely ending it. This farm provides almost all of the feed for our cattle in the winter months. We’d lose the farm, and wouldn’t be able to feed our cows when the snow falls, so we’d more than likely be out of the cattle business as well.”

“This will cause our farm significant financial damage — likely ending it.”

Josie Moss, Jefferson County rancher

History and politics of Idaho water

Water rights in Idaho favor a “first in time, first in line” system. An 1881 law enshrined in the state constitution protects “senior water rights” for some residents, including farmers in Magic Valley.

In 2016, a water agreement was signed to balance the interests of farmers with senior water rights, who pull their water directly from the Snake River, and those with junior water rights who rely on groundwater — well systems that pump off the aquifer feeding Snake River.

Officials say the junior water rights holders breached this agreement in 2021 and again in 2022. But these farmers say this is because the terms of the agreement were changed.

At the time of the 2016 agreement, farmers felt the formula in place to manage water distribution was reasonable. However, the official water rights agreement did not contain any language to protect this original formula.

Two years ago, the Department of Water Resources, under its new director Mathew Weaver, changed that formula.

This occurred when the Magic Valley-based Surface Water Coalition sued the Idaho Department of Water Resources in 2022, claiming east Idaho water users were depleting the aquifer. In response, the state issued a new methodology order curtailing water for all junior groundwater rights holders.

On the day this order came out, the Snake Basin over American Falls was reported to have a 133% snowpack, with even higher snowpack percentages in other regions.

“We’re having one of the best water years we’ve had in the last decade,” Mr. VanderSloot said. “There’s more water than they know what to do with. In this kind of a year, they’re deciding that they’re going to close down 500,000 acres? None of it makes any sense.”

No help expected from the governor’s office

Governor Little, a Republican, says there is nothing he can do to help impacted farmers. He issued a statement saying that the involved parties must work together to find a solution.

“The two sides working together is far better than any government-imposed solution. While the terms of any deal likely won’t be perfect for either side – compromise never is – it would provide water for crops this year.”

But attorneys and farm groups dispute that, claiming the governor’s office and the Department of Water Resources have broad discretionary power in how they interpret laws to manage water disputes and could act to save the farms in jeopardy and to create a framework around water agreements that protect producers in the long term.

For now, four holdout counties in eastern Idaho are refusing to sign agreements, fearing that their livelihood will be permanently jeopardized. The Department of Water Resources remains determined to demand mitigation actions from groundwater users. If farmers whose wells have been tagged continue to irrigate, they face severe fines.

“None of it makes any sense.”

“Why would they be doing this? Who does it benefit? None of it makes any sense,” Mr. VanderSloot said. “I do know this. They sure wanted to keep this out of the press. If there’s nothing to hide, why keep it all covered up? Hopefully the public will take an interest and at least pay attention to what’s going on.”

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