Idaho Water Shutdown Order LIFTED; Economic Disaster Avoided; Farmers Claim Victory For Now But Say It’s Not Over


Water rights holders in Idaho have reached an agreement to prevent an immediate water shutdown on 330,000 acres of farmland across the state.

The new mitigation agreement was signed Wednesday, June 19, and now heads to the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) for final approval.

Once the agreement is signed by IDWR Director Mathew Weaver, farmers under the curtailment order will be able to water their crops without threat of shutdown or extreme fines. Director Weaver will reassess the situation in July.

If these farmers are found to be in compliance with the mitigation agreement, the curtailment order will be lifted.

In a Wednesday email, the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators (IGWA) celebrated the announcement. “This is a huge relief to our members, who have had their livelihoods threatened over the past month,” said TJ Budge, IGWA attorney, in the release. 

Farmers Warn the Fix Is Only Temporary

While the agreement is a major relief for groundwater irrigators and will prevent an immediate economic disaster in East Idaho by allowing the 2024 growing season to go forward, farmers warn that the fix is only temporary. Underlying issues with management of the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer (ESPA) remain unchanged.

For now, groundwater rights holders are forced to trust state officials in their promise to implement an effective and fair water management plan before the 2025 season.

In a lengthy Facebook post, longtime East Idaho potato farmer Brian Murdock thanked local ground water boards for their efforts. “This has not been an easy process. Their farms, ranches, and families have suffered during this unnecessary and avoidable disaster thrust on us by the Idaho Department of Water Resources.”

Assuming the agreement is approved by Director Weaver, the curtailment order will remain in effect but ground water rights holders be under a modified version of the 2016 mitigation plan. In July, the IDWR will reevaluate the situation to determine if water rights holders are adhering to the agreement or if there is any further damage projected for the Twin Falls Canal Company. At that time, the curtailment order will be officially lifted, or continued.

“We can turn back on our pumps without the threat of fines hanging over our heads,” Mr. Murdock explained. “All we have is the assurance from the state that no fines will be issued if we stay under the negotiated mitigation plan for the rest of the growing season.”

“If we don’t keep the pressure on, this water issue will get kicked down the road again.”

Most farmers in East Idaho believe the 2016 mitigation plan is not workable in the long term and must be updated.

Mr. Murdock urged Idahoans to contact their representatives and advocate for groundwater rights users well before the Idaho Legislature reconvenes next January.

“We have now until October 1, 2024 to work out further details and changes to the agreement,” Mr. Murdock wrote. “The State and the Surface Water Coalition (canals in Southern Idaho) really want East Idaho to stay chained to the original 2016 Mitigation Agreement/Plan. There are some provisions in the original agreement that are in their favor and hold us responsible for their wealth and happiness. Which is why it isn’t a workable agreement in the first place.”

Governor Brad Little: “We still have a lot of hard work to do.”

In a statement, Governor Brad Little applauded the successful efforts of all parties to find a solution, and added that the work isn’t over.

“We will be okay for this year, but we all agree we need a better plan in the out years to protect our farmers and ensure Idaho maintains our water sovereignty,” Governor Little cautioned.

Governor Little was the subject of widespread backlash for his unwillingness to intervene against the curtailment order. In the same statement, he defended his decision, claiming that any action on his part would have violated the state constitution.

“I have heard repeated calls for me to step in and stop Director Weaver from moving forward in administering the law. Doing so would violate the Idaho Constitution and create a risk of handing control of our water over to the state courts, or worse the federal courts, or worst U.S. Congress. Instead, we chose to work together on a solution.”

Mathew Weaver was appointed head of the IDWR by Governor Little in September 2023.

In an interview with Ag Proud Idaho back in January, months before the curtailment order, Mr. Weaver defended his office’s right to make tough calls on water use, as well as water users’ right to challenge those decisions.

“To those frustrated with some of the controversial decisions our department issues, I want to emphasize that everything we do is within the context of the law,” he told Ag Proud Idaho. “Certainly, I hope people don’t ever feel that the department is motivated in the decisions surrounding management, administration and curtailment. We’re motivated strictly by adhering to the law and would welcome legal challenges when people feel that we’ve erred.

In the West, Mark Twain’s axiom remains true : “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”

As previously reported, the water curtailment order was issued on May 30, 2024 to resolve a dispute between surface water rights holders, who largely have senior water rights, and groundwater rights holders, whose rights are typically more junior. The Idaho constitution enshrines seniority in determining water rights, a unique system in Western states.

The IDWR claimed several districts failed to comply with a mitigation agreement meant to protect the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer and ordered an immediate water shutdown for some 6400 groundwater rights holders.

“The curtailment was ordered after IDWR projected a 74,100-acre-foot shortfall of surface water to the Twin Falls Canal Company, a senior water right holder in the Magic Valley,” the email release from IGWA claimed. “The new plan mitigates for that shortfall and continues the commitment of IGWA members to recharge the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer.”

Farmers say they received no warning before the shutdown order came down, and that it came after planting, setting up a potentially devastating economic crisis across East Idaho.

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