- Associated Press - Thursday, January 30, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Growers of sugar beets and potatoes in eight counties along southern Idaho’s Snake River could be in jeopardy after a fish hatchery’s complaint that it isn’t getting its fair share of water.

Idaho Department of Water Resources’ director Gary Spackman signed an order Wednesday telling 2,300 water-right holders they’ll have to shut down irrigation if they can’t reach a compromise with Rangen Inc, a Hagerman-based fish farm and feed producer.

This shut-off call for farmers who pump water from deep beneath the earth comes amid a disastrous year of snowfall, at least so far, that portends a parched summer - and scant water to sustain this rich agricultural region’s demands. Rangen’s water right has priority, giving it first dibs on water over the pumpers.

Wayne Courtney, Rangen’s executive vice president, said the hatchery had seen “significant” drop-off in recent years.

“It hasn’t been a sudden drop-off, but it’s been a constant decline for several years,” he said.

Tim Luke, IDWR’s water compliance bureau chief, said that the situation may not be dire for everyone affected by the water call. Many farmers use the groundwater as a supplement to surface water irrigation: they’ll feel the pinch if the shut-off goes through, but it won’t necessarily be a fatal blow.

But others could be forced to watch their crops wither in the sun when they are forced to stop pumping to their fields.

“It’s huge,” Luke said. “If the groundwater was your only supply, you would potentially have no income this year.”

Idaho follows a water-rights practice that grant’s priority to whichever claim was there first. With Rangen’s claim stretching back to the early 1960s, the company is entitled to a set amount of water that does not fluctuate even in dry years.

Groundwater lobbyist Lynn Tominaga says pumpers are now scrambling for alternatives. Tominaga represents the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, a group whose members pump water from the Lake Erie-sized Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer and who would be impacted by Spackman’s water call.

If it goes through, Tominaga said, his group will be faced with a stark choice: Find an alternative to deliver water to Rangen - possibly in the form of recharging the aquifer or converting their pump-fed farms to water delivered from canals - or be forced to shut down.

The five-year timeline means not everybody is going to be affected at once. However, Tominaga said, the full economic impact would be enormous. With each acre producing about $1,000 in agricultural revenue, that would mean a $157 million hit to Idaho’s economy, if the order were to be carried out in its entirety.

“That doesn’t count the seed dealer, the fertilizer dealer, the chemical dealer,” said Tominaga, who said his members will do their utmost to avoid the doomsday scenario of Idaho Department of Water Resources employees arriving and locking up pumps.

The son of farmers who have grown crops in southern Idaho for more than a half-century, Tominaga remains optimistic the weather could intervene and help avert a crisis.

So far, however, Mother Nature hasn’t played along.

On Thursday, the mountains above nearly two dozen river basins in Idaho, most of which feed the Snake River, were showing far less precipitation than an average year, according to data from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Meanwhile, many reservoirs were already low, after consecutive poor snow years.

With this in mind, the Idaho Department of Water Resources on Tuesday issued a letter to hundreds of irrigators, commercial and industrial operations and cities in southern Idaho - separate from the Rangen water call - warning them that another water curtailment could be ordered after April.

“If the predicted runoff is the same as in 2001, the lowest runoff water year since 1981, groundwater rights with priority dates junior to September 23, 1974, may be subject to curtailment,” Spackman told farmers, telling them to brace for potential action.

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