In Search of Water (part 2)

Words by Lisa Horowitz 

I am flying north of Shoshone, Idaho, in a 1934 Fairchild single engine with my long-time pilot friend Mike Penrose. We fly over southern Idaho lava mixed with fallow fields and the seasonally golden foothills, looking north toward the peaks ringing the horizon. As we approach the blinking light at the junction of Highway 75 and Highway 20 (the Sun Valley local’s signal that you’re almost home), Mike calls the tower, “November57niner524 this is 5 south for landing with info, bravo.” He banks slightly and I see the broad swatch of what locals call “the Triangle” open before me: a deep primary green oasis of small farms and ranchettes south of Bellevue. The landscape is in Kodak contrast to the secondary browns and golds of what is our natural landscape here in Idaho as summer turns to autumn.

Heading towards the Sun Valley airport (located 11 miles south of Sun Valley in Hailey), I see the entire Wood River Valley stretching north, a surprising necklace of green in an otherwise arid brown landscape. The squawker comes on, “November57niner524 this is Hailey tower. Make a right 360 for spacing.” Mike tells me this is pilot speak telling us to make way for a large jet, which has priority to land over us. Mike banks to the right, and we are now over miles and miles of the other Idaho—the one that is high desert, unirrigated, dry. The ridges and swells of dry sagebrush go on as far as I can see. Out of nowhere I wonder—what made this place ever seem habitable? I see now the jet, emblematic of Sun Valley’s tourist economy, bringing guests to a valley known for skiing and outdoor recreation and I realize—they may never consider how the valley became green.

Today the West faces a severe water shortage. Extended periods of drought, increased development, and quiet but fundamental changes in agriculture have contributed to this unsustainable existence. The result? Someone is going to come up short on water. In this second of a four-part series on water in the West, we look at Idaho as a case study. We explore how decisions are made about who gets to use water in Idaho, what the issues are in this debate, and why water use should be at the top of our list of things to worry about when it comes to our livelihood and legacy.

Water. Trying to get a handle on the issues surrounding water is a little like trying to carry an open gallon of it uphill without spilling any. Once you think you have a handle on it, a new angle appears and you have to reconfigure what you know. So, in an effort to understand the water issues facing southern Idaho, I ask Kevin Lakey, Regional Water Master for District 37, which includes the Sun Valley area, if I can tag along with him for a day to understand what a water master does. I did a bit of research and found that a water master is in charge of
the distribution of irrigation water. Sounds clear-cut right? In reality, Kevin’s job is much more complex—it’s a job fraught with political angles, and, in large part, it’s about educating water users and laypeople like myself about how to use and manage water in the region.

In a previous life, Kevin was a schoolteacher—so he’s gifted at simplifying the complex, and he’s good at working with competing constituencies. Kevin’s territory covers three counties and a vast amount of land that comprises the Big Wood and Little Wood River drainages. He ensures that senior water right holders are delivered the allotment of water guaranteed to them under Idaho law; he measures, studies, educates, and stays on top of water issues as they arise.

Within this area Kevin is responsible for over 700 groundwater rights, 675 unique wells, and 289 surface water diversions. I struggle to understand what this responsibility means as Kevin pulls into our first stop—the Bellevue Cemetery, 15 miles south of Sun Valley and smack in the middle of the Wood River drainage…