In Search of Water

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.

No surprise here—the grass is green. We are here to visit with Bill, the manager, who is accompanied by Skittles, a small, feisty black and white dog of indeterminate breed. Kevin jumps out, shakes hands, and immediately focuses on some pieces of hardware that are not even in my field of vision—an irrigation meter and a nearby standpipe. The District has asked the Cemetery to  install a time clock, and the question is: is it on or off?  “Well,” says Bill, “that is a mystery.” His hands go in his pockets as he peers in the same direction as Kevin. “We water every night by zone.” Meters, the most fundamental measuring tool for water use, were required by the District in 2013. The Cemetery does not have one yet. Kevin is unfazed by this report from Bill. He and Bill discuss who in the vast network of Bellevue Cemetery volunteers might know which landscaper installed the clock; this may provide the answers to Kevin’s questions. After a few more pleasantries, we jump back in the truck.

This quick visit, emblematic of water use issues in a dry western state, does not reveal anything new to those familiar with the topic of water in Idaho. The state, scientists, lawyers, farmers, environmentalists, reporters, fishermen, and long-time residents like me have all been keeping their eyes on the Big Wood River Basin, our water consumption, our dryness, and what it all means about our way of life. And this issue is not exclusive to Idaho or Sun Valley. The Mountain West at large is struggling with the tightrope walk between our lifestyle and our water consumption.

We use a lot of water in Idaho. Idaho’s billion gallons of water use ranks 4th in the nation behind the greatly more populated states of California, Florida, and Texas. However we are second in the nation for irrigated acres, and in the #1 slot for irrigated acres per capita. We also have green golf courses and lush lawns. And homeowners, as we mentioned in our last issue, are not off the hook either. On average, Wood River Valley residents use 700 gallons of water per day. The average Idahoan uses 200 gallons per day whereas the average U.S. citizen uses 100. All of this adds up to too much water use.

Agriculture, deeply rooted in Idaho heritage, is synonymous with the state. It is fundamental work, growing food, and it’s a way of life that has been passed down from one generation to the next since the West was settled. Any Easterner, even if they have never been here, is familiar with the Idaho® potato. What other state has a Potato Commission, supported by Tater TV? But the Pioneers on the Mormon Trail did not see this fertile Idaho. On their arduous trek, the Snake River Plain was a vast, desolate, treacherous wasteland. The federally designated lands of southern Idaho were sparsely populated and even more sparsely used until a law in 1894, which offered over a million acres of federal land to anyone who could irrigate it and turn it into functioning farmland for a 10-year stretch. By 1910 most of the Snake River Basin was irrigated by dams and water projects constructed in a feverish pitch to create crops in this great new food basin—evidence of man’s ingenuity and industriousness, fortitude and resilience. But also the beginnings of our water woes.

The Snake River Plain covers 15,600 square miles of desert, and receives 10 inches of rainfall per year. Now 6.5 million acres are productive farmland with 18 counties economically strung together and the famous Idaho® potato long the dominant crop. But since 1993, potato crops are down 18 percent, and water-intensive crops like corn have tripled and alfalfa crops have grown by 10 times. During this same time period, the number of dairy cows has tripled. And cows need water too. These are subtle but significant shifts in the way agriculture is conducted in southern Idaho, contributing to water depletion across the region.

Most of the area is considered an inland desert. In the Wood River Valley, elevations range from 5,200 to 9,000 feet, and receive in some areas a bit more rain than most deserts: 15 to 18 inches per year in Hailey and Ketchum, less down south in the farmlands, according to Brian Patton with the Idaho Department of Water Resources. Compare this to the average town in the U.S. that gets 25 inches of rainfall per year, and then look at Portland—42 inches a year. Compound that with multiple years of drought, spring runoff that, year after year, comes earlier and earlier, increased water use, limited water storage and, last August, the lowest water level reading at Silver Creek Preserve in the history of recorded readings. No wonder water is such a hot topic.

The state of Idaho has been paying attention to water—who gets it, and how it is used—since its inception.

Where water is concerned, we follow an historic and eloquent doctrine, “first in time, first in right.” At the turn of the century, this law was a straightforward way to meter out surface water to those who were there first. “The application was fairly simple when you had four farmers using one ditch,” Fritz Hammerle tells me. Fritz, a native to the Sun Valley area, wears two fundamentally incompatible hats. He is the mayor of Hailey, the biggest town in the Wood River Valley, and he is a water rights lawyer who has successfully litigated numerous water rights cases, which will affect water decisions in Idaho for decades to come. I spoke with him in his Hailey office in a quest to get my arms around this complex legal issue. “Now we don’t have four farmers on a ditch, we have 400. A few key decisions have turned this simple doctrine into an issue that is 25% fact, 25% law, and 50% politics.”

“First in time” was developed in the late 1800s in the West as a way of managing a scarce resource. Farmers took water out of the river, from ditches, dams, and other diversions visible to the human eye. Water was managed as a commodity, something to be bought and sold. It was simple: whoever was first had the most “senior” water right.

Here in the high desert West, most of our water issues are connected to the groundwater that runs through the complex, interconnected aquifers underneath us. With good intentions and unintended consequences, the state of Idaho decided about 20 years ago that surface water and groundwater were likely linked. From a scientific standpoint, this makes perfect sense. An aquifer in simplest terms is permeable rock that allows water to flow and puddle underground. Even a layperson like me can see our porous, cobbly soil and understand that it not only collects water, it literally sucks it from every depression like a giant loofah sponge. Not even rivers are exempt from the strong pull of these subsurface rocky soils.

“When we started mixing surface water and groundwater in terms of rights, our four farmers on a ditch doctrine for ‘first in time’ became infinitesimally more complicated,” says Fritz. This practice has another big-word name, “conjunctive management.” Conjunctive management, the process of managing surface water and groundwater rights together, “has put Idaho a good 20 years ahead of water management planning in other western states such as California,” says Al Barker, a water rights lawyer in Idaho with over three decades of experience and a member of the Idaho State Water Board.

So Idaho is ahead of other states but with much work yet to come. Idaho did not regulate how much water was used from surface water permits until 1971. In most basins, the Wood River Valley’s included, groundwater is still not regulated beyond getting a license to drill a well. Managing surface water and groundwater together does not happen overnight, but only after years of careful study. The process started a year ago in the Sun Valley area with the launch of a three-year, publicly funded groundwater model. The state, along with the expert and politically neutral scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, will spend this time developing, testing, peer reviewing, presenting, and tweaking a model that shows what is going on underground. This I have learned: there is general agreement that the depletion of groundwater is acute and cumulative. Opinions over the reasons for the decline are controversial: pumping, drought, climate change, and development. We know we are overusing, but solutions are still years out.

As necessary as conjunctive management is, Barker foresees possible conflicts between groundwater users in the north valley and surface water users, whose water rights are older and therefore take priority, in Bellevue and farther south. When asked if he foresees a time when water users might take up arms to protect their access to water, Barker responds, “I don’t have to look into the future for that. Look at Klamath Valley in Oregon.” And with that, it’s obvious that even though water management systems are slow to develop, the need for them is urgent.

So where’s the bright spot in this topic? An unlikely combination of farmers, big business, and environmental groups are leading the way. I spoke with a few of the key players to get a sense of what the future holds.

Brett Stevenson, who grew up on a ranch in the Bellevue Triangle, came back to the area after graduate school. She manages the Wood River Bike Coalition by day and works on issues of farming, water use, and land stewardship by night. Her family farms near the Silver Creek Preserve, famed hunting and fishing ground of Ernest Hemingway. The Stevenson family wants to collaborate in order to address the issue of water, and they are willing to enlist unlikely partners to do so. A portion of their ranch is viewed by millions on the MillerCoors website, a project called the Showcase Barley Farm. This joint partnership between MillerCoors, The Nature Conservancy, and the Stevenson family saves 150 million gallons of water per year and cuts the power bills at the ranch in half. And improvements continue to be made. How? Eliminating pivot end-guns, lowering sprinkler heads, variable rate pivots, and a smartphone app that pings their ranch manager showing dew-moisture content in the soil. The goal? “We want to leave more water in the river and aquifer and continue to work on community-based solutions” says Brett. Their efforts are supported by Blaine County, which has valued agriculture as an important land use since the county’s first comprehensive plan was written in 1975. “We are only on the cusp of seeing what can be done with agricultural best practices,” says Larry Schoen, a County Commissioner and south valley rancher. “The issue is that we are all using more water than is being replenished. At the county level, we are reaching out to the cities, our citizenry, and our farmers to ask—are you prepared?”

Likewise, Mark Davidson at Trout Unlimited is working on another paradigm that could allow more water to stay in the river. “We are in the process of developing a program with a shared community vision for agriculture, municipalities, and the natural resources,” says Mark. This program would be a mechanism to incentivize conservation on a much bigger scale than turning your sprinklers off or flushing less.

“So often the squeaky wheel gets the attention. Well, guess what, the environment doesn’t squeak,” says Scott Boetgger, Executive Director of the Wood River Land Trust. As the leader of one of the Wood River Valley’s founding land management organizations and a fisherman and hunter, Scott has an innate understanding of how natural systems work in central Idaho. His organization has been quietly going about the business of educating their members and the community at large about the interconnectedness of water use and the environment. “One of our biggest threats is the trend towards warmer, wetter springs. In high mountain aquifers like ours, water storage is the snowpack. We need snow to stay on the hills and in the side canyons as long as possible. That gives us our best chance of having water in the river during the hot, low-flow months. The Land Trust wants to help this community make tangible connections between river, livelihood, and sense of place.”

Water Master Kevin and I make our final visit of the day. We pull into a place out of time: an idyllic gentleman’s farm south of Bellevue near a part of the river called the Broadford Slough. We are greeted by Hoss the caretaker who arrives on a golf cart with his shotgun casually slung over the front seat. Hoss knows this property well and quickly shows Kevin the pipes and devices that I still cannot see—they are well camouflaged and my eye is not trained to find them. Kevin comments that this farm has one of the oldest water rights in the Wood River Valley, and was once a Chinese mining village. Its owners are here only part time, once or twice a year. I look out over rows of fruit trees, emerald lawns, and verdant pastures. This quiet idyllic place represents the seam line between old Idaho farming and Sun Valley resort living. Will both values survive? Fritz Hammerle says we need to recognize that we live in a desert and start acting like it. What other changes—at the top of the mountain stream, and down–valley at the bottom—will mark our quest for ecologic balance? As Kevin and I say our goodbyes, I can’t help but think about how Kevin describes his work: “The biggest part of my job is trying to look down the road to see what’s going to happen.”

And while it’s encouraging to hear about unlikely collaborators working on solutions, it’s evident that our current practices are unsustainable.

Look for more on water in the West in our Spring issue. 

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