Western Water Wars

Well, it's not open warfare yet, but when a state bureaucrat starts talking about using the cops to keep farmers from irrigating their crops, the situation is pretty darn serious:

Idaho Water Resources Director David Tuthill said he is prepared to use sheriffs or Idaho State Police officers if necessary to shut off pumps irrigating 22,000 acres of crops in the Magic Valley this week. Food processing plants, 13 cities and dozens of dairies also would lose access to groundwater under Tuthill's order to meet the demand of two trout producers. Overall, the curtailment could directly cost Idaho's economy more than $28 million this year, based on Tuthill's estimate.

Tuthill told the legislature's interim natural resources committee he still hoped to avoid what would be the largest curtailment of water rights in the state's history. But talks Friday between groundwater users and the two fish companies failed to bridge their differences over when and how to hold a hearing based on the state's first-come, first-served water laws. "We have no desire to curtail, but will do so if required by state law," Tuthill said.

I don't pretend to understand the ins and outs of Idaho's water laws, which involve things like "junior rights."  But still, this sounds grave.

If Tuthill goes ahead with the curtailment, he's confident that cities, most businesses and farmers will follow the law. Farmers would get a letter ordering them to shut off their pumps by a cutoff date.

After that, the state has remote monitoring technology to see who is not complying. Farmers would face a $300-per-acre fine for ignoring Tuthill's order.

Remote monitoring technology?  Like satellites to see who's pumping water?  Or are there meters in the aquifer?

"We aren't looking for confrontations in people's back yards," Tuthill said.

But the state has called in county sheriffs in the past to enforce water laws and could even call in the Idaho State Police, Tuthill said.

"This is not something, I suspect, where we bring out the National Guard," Tuthill said.

Probably because the Guard is all tied up in Iraq.

In times of drought, users with newer, junior rights are forced to stop using water. This is routine among competing surface water users but has never been carried out against groundwater users.

Shutting down pumps in the middle of the growing season would be the worst-case scenario in the continuing water dispute between groundwater users and surface water users who depend on water from the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer. The aquifer is an underground water source the size of Lake Erie that spreads from Ashton west to King Hill.

Farmers, who can have thousands of dollars invested per acre in high-value crops like corn, sugar beets and potatoes, could lose everything, with the costs rippling through the economy in the form of defaulted bank loans, unpaid bills to suppliers and unpaid taxes.

Corn in Idaho?  Is this another result of the government-fueled ethanol craze, which I'm convinced future economic historians will look back on the same way they recount tulipmania?

This is nuts.  And the drought in Idaho isn't nearly as bad as elsewhere in the country right now.

But Idaho is certainly not alone when it comes to making difficult decisions about water supplies, as this free DR White Paper from our own Chris Mayer makes clear.  Check it out.

(Hat tip Sam Smith.)