MORELAND — Snake River Storage got the go-ahead from the county commissioners this week to use the old Moreland Gravel Pit as a recharge site to return water to the Snake River Aquifer.
Snake River Storage is an organization of Bingham County water users dedicated to helping groundwater pumpers court-ordered to furnish mitigation water to downriver irrigators to meet their quotas,
Alan Jackson, manager of the Bingham County Groundwater District, was on hand Friday as Ralph Dalley, ditch rider for the Peoples Canal Co., opened the headgate that allowed water to begin flowing into the pit that was used as a swimming hole before it went dry.
Jackson said while the primary purpose is recharging the aquifer, it could also hold enough water someday for recreation purposes but it’s not certain how long that will take. “We’re hoping it will start seeping into the aquifer immediately,” he said.
Jackson and Jennifer Ellis, who co-chairs Snake River Storage with Robert Murdock, met with the county commissioners to get final approval to use the gravel pit and provided them with information about the important role farming plays in the county’s economy.
Ellis said SRS was formed when a group of farmers with storage water shares in the canal companies got together and hatched a plan to sell the water their shares entitled them to, but didn’t need for their own crops to the groundwater pumpers to satisfy their mitigation obligations.
For the past four years the excess water has been going back into the aquifer at seven discharge sites in the county, and the new site at Moreland is an ideal location for the purpose, she said.
She said Jackson, a hydrology expert, and Steve Howser, manager of the Aberdeen-Springfield Canal Co., were instrumental in getting the organization up and running.
Explaining why the groundwater pumpers owe water to the downstream users, Jackson said the Snake River both feeds into and receives water from the aquifer. It puts water into the aquifer above Blackfoot, he said, and begins receiving water from springs below Blackfoot, where the rights of the Twin Falls Canal Co., begin.
Years after it became possible to farm farther out on the desert due to the availability of electricity for pumping from deep wells, the canal company took the groundwater pumpers to court, saying its members were damaged because of the water pumped from the aquifer.
The judge in the case agreed with the canal company and gave the downstream irrigators the right to make water calls on the pumpers, which they would have to fulfill by providing water to mitigate the damage, he said, and when a call comes, the pumpers are obliged to find replacement water. “We decided that could be done without going outside the county if people were willing to sell their excess storage water.”
Without the recharge water, Jackson said, the district would have had to reduce water use by 12.6 percent under the terms of a recent settlement agreement. That would have taken 27,720 acres of farm land out of production, which would have meant a potential economic loss to the county of $31,290,343. He said the economic value of using the Moreland pit as a recharge site is $462,244 per year.
Income from sale of the water is used by the canal companies to make improvements to their operations.
Ellis said if the water level in the pit returns to its former level, it will make a lot of people who aren’t farmers happy.
For many years after he county stopped taking gravel from the pit, it filled with water that seeped from the Aberdeen-Springfield Canal, and was one of the most popular recreation spots in the area for swimmers — so popular that the county commissioners obtained a grant from the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation to enhance it with a small grassy park containing picnic tables and other amenities.
With added pressure from water calls and drought, the canal company couldn’t continue losing so much water to seepage along its route. It lined its canal, and the swimming hole dried up.
Having grown up in the Moreland community west of Blackfoot, Ellis said, she and others were dismayed at the decline of the gravel pit as a recreation site, especially when the large cottonwood trees and other vegetation that had grown up around it over the years started dying.
They thought they could kill two birds with one stone, she said. Making the old gravel pit into a recharge site would not only meet their goal of putting water back into the aquifer to benefit agricultural production, it could once more function as a swimming hole and recreation spot and again become the oasis it once was.