Saturday, November 8, 2008

President Priestley's Editorial

Idaho Farm Bureau President Frank Priestley--Putnam photo

California Water Crisis Signals Warning for Other States
By Idaho Farm Bureau President Frank Priestley

A drought that’s lasted only two years is creating serious problems in this nation’s most populous state. And other Western states, including Idaho, had better take notice of the simple fact that if we don’t increase water storage we are putting our food supply and our economy in jeopardy.

If the drought in California continues until spring, water officials there are planning to ration municipal water deliveries and dry up as much as 200,000 acres of farm land. Compounding California’s problem is a recent federal court ruling that limits pumping of water out of the Sacramento / San Joaquin Delta in order to protect an endangered fish, the smelt. Sound familiar?

To sum up California’s problem, the state ranks number one in population with over 37 million people and number one in value of agricultural output at $36.6 billion in 2007. At the present time, there’s not enough water to supply both of those demands. So water managers’ options include first, pray for rain and make plans to dry up farm land, and second ration water to cities and encourage people to conserve, by limiting lawn watering and other activities.

Idaho citizens, lawmakers and water managers should have a clear understanding of this situation and what it means. In times of severe shortages, the municipalities will get their water first. Even though farmers may own the rights to use that water, the cities won’t get shorted in order to irrigate crops. And just because Idaho isn’t dealing with drought at the present time, we do live in a desert and should be making proactive plans to deal with it.

From Idaho agriculture’s perspective, we like the idea of building more dams and increasing the size of existing dams to help accommodate future growth much better than drying up farm land. Taking farms out of production stifles economic activity and puts a lot of people out of work. It also increases the cost of food and increases the amount of imported food, which can compromise food safety.

Our easiest fix is to do a much better job of recharging a massive aquifer that stretches along the Snake River Plain roughly from Ashton to Mountain Home. In high water years, thousands of acre feet of excess water flows down the Snake River and out to the Pacific. Much of this water could be channeled into canals and allowed to percolate down into the aquifer.

It seems like a simple, proactive solution to a problem Idaho is sure to face sooner or later. However, finding solutions to Idaho water issues is anything but simple.

In 2006 several state legislators and agriculture groups got behind an aquifer recharge proposal. But the legislation was devoured by an Idaho Power public relations campaign. The utility claimed if excess spring flows were diverted from the river there wouldn’t be enough water to generate power and rates would increase. Although it lacked logic – the water in question was excess and would have flown over spillways and not through turbines anyway – Idaho Power’s lobbying machine convinced 21 state senators to vote against the measure and it died.

California has grown to the point where only two years of drought can put the state in a rationing situation. That’s a strong indication that California waited too long before addressing its lack of water storage capacity. Idaho has the opportunity to solve this problem before it becomes a crisis. Let’s not follow California’s example.

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