Water and the lack thereof

Our City

 A.F. Mayor Marc Beitia

People have died over it and for it. Its importance most likely predates even geologic history. Yet, today most take it for granted, up until the time it is not available to them. In excess, it kills you in a few different ways. Without it you die slowly and, from all accounts, miserably. It, education funding and the lack of any transportation legislation were the talk of the Association of Idaho Cities legislative meetings in Boise this past Thursday.

Last week I paraphrased Mayor Dana Kirkham of Ammon. This morning I looked up the original quote of former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, “There is no Democratic or Republican way of fixing a sewer.” Some have tried to make education a Democratic or Republican issue, although like our roads it affects most of us equally and when politicized becomes an irresolvable mess. Generally, it seems the further one gets from a child’s education and our deteriorating roads and bridges, the easier it is to make politics out of each. The talk of the capital is that education is at the forefront for increased revenues after having been eviscerated over the past eight years. But wait! There is a looming cataclysm on the horizon. We are currently in a drought; not as disastrous as the one in California, but plenty bad. As I sit here, I contemplate what will happen and ponder how to best help the citizens of American Falls.

Water…or more accurately, the lack thereof…was the talk of the capital. Statewide, the numbers bantered around were less than 60% snowpack and water-year-to-date precipitation. The Idaho Snotel website confirms the numbers. A looming cataclysm because we are an agricultural state. State revenues are expected to be down dramatically if our weather trend continues. When revenues decline, so too do the monies returned to public entities dependent on them.

An old adage of the west is “whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’.” If the weather trend continues I expect it to become more of a truism. I suspect the battles will be more legal and possibly legislative than outright physical acts. As I returned to my city office on Friday afternoon, I had a letter from Gary Spackman waiting for me. Some of you will know the name and its significance in this conversation, others will be blissfully unaware. Mr. Spackman is the Director of the State of Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR). His letter referenced a “notice of potential curtailment of ground water rights in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer (ESPA).” If you are conversant in “water” circles this doesn’t come as too much of a surprise. According to the IDWR, curtailment predictions are based on years with similar carryover conditions. There is a 50% chance no curtailment will be required and a 30% chance that ground water rights with priority dates junior to May 31, 1989 may be curtailed. If the predicted runoff is the same as in 2001, the lowest runoff water year since 1981, ground water rights with priority dates junior to September 23, 1974 may be subject to curtailment.

Curtailment: the action or fact of reducing or restricting something, namely water in this instance. If worse comes to worst, the City of American Falls could stand to have one-half of its existing water rights reduced or restricted, cities from Jerome to Rigby could share a similar or even worse fate, not to mention the impact it would have on many of our farmers and food processors. It could indeed be cataclysmic.

I am cogitating on a way forward between diametrically opposed positions: that is, the will of the people I serve and myself. Nearly eight years ago the city tried to pass a bond that would have allowed us to rebuild the Sunbeam Springs waterline. Originally, that bond failed for one glaring reason: it contained a provision for the installation of water meters throughout town. Folks were pretty much dead-set against meters, so we took them out of the bid bond and ran it again. We now have a new spring line. People wanted their water and no one was going to monitor how much they used. There appeared to be no need to conserve the resource. Perhaps opinions will change with the times. How is it fair that a retired couple on a small fixed income pays the same as a family of five, six or ten? How is it that the house at Polk and Stevens pays the same to water their lawn as the smaller lot right next door on Stevens when the corner lot is twice as big. Like it or not I suspect Mother Nature will eventually make us pay for what we actually use as meters become a mandate from someone with a lot more to say about it than me. Letting nature take her course is a way forward I suppose; it is not proactive, but it is a way.

On the proactive side there is a piece of legislation this session that seems to have some traction. It relates to managed recharge of the ESPA. It is a goal of the City to take advantage of this opportunity should it come to pass. In short it would allow us to take water that is unused from the Sunbeam Springs during the winter months and inject it back into the aquifer as recharge and storage. If the legislation passes as proposed, this will allow us not only to store unused water in the aquifer for later use but also to mitigate nutrient problems in two of our city wells. When drawn down in the summer due to high irrigation demands, well number 1 tends extremely close to DEQ limits for nitrates while well number three approaches arsenic limits. Injecting recharge water into these wells should dilute the concentration of nutrients and allow us to use them longer in the season if water rights aren’t curtailed in future years.

As a side note, the transmission went out on our old top-loading washing machine last Wednesday. I was at Pocatello Electric today shopping for a new one. While the front loaders cost a couple hundred more initially, they end up saving about $250 annually. Over the life of the washer, that equates to about a $3000 savings, plus they use two-thirds less water than the top loaders. Save a resource and money, what a concept…

Until next week…

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