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Idaho company pushes plan to divert Big Wood water

A company’s proposal to divert water from a central Idaho river to recharge a local aquifer so its clients can use their wells during dry periods has drawn opposition from conservation groups, government agencies and utilities on concerns the project could hurt fish and create conflicts among water users.

The Idaho Mountain Express reported Nov. 27 that David Tuthill, a partner at Idaho Water Engineering and ex-director of the state’s water department, aims to divert water from the Big Wood River during high flows.

He’s assembling financing for the project from a group of people who get water from wells in the region. If it wins approval from Tuthill’s former agency, the Idaho Department of Water Resources, he would be able to continue to pump from wells in times of low water.

“Groundwater recharge has an extensive history in the Western United States. It has not been used for this purpose in Idaho. We’re inventing the process as we go forward,” Tuthill told The Associated Press, adding he believes such recharge programs will become more and more important in central Idaho’s Blaine County as supplies grow scarce. “Every year, we anticipate the need for mitigation plans for wells in the valley.”

Water is critical to Idaho’s economy, and recent years have seen battles between groundwater pumpers who pull their water from the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer and surface-water users whose water comes from canals. The issue in the region surrounding the Wood River has been exacerbated by swift growth, as the population in Blaine County has nearly quadrupled since 1970.

So far, foes include the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Bureau of Land Management, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Power Co. and Trout Unlimited.

Fish and Game is worried about fish habitat, writing in a protest letter to Idaho’s Water Resources agency that pumping like Tuthill’s company envisions could hurt the ability of rainbow trout to migrate upstream every spring.

“It could have substantial adverse effects on the resident fisheries in the Big Wood River,” according to Fish and Game’s letter.

Other foes raised the specter of a water fight.

In a letter to the Department of Water Resources, for instance, Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen suggested Tuthill’s plan would lead to “expensive conflict among water users vying for scarce, meager and questionable mitigation options, satisfying a minority intermittently … while leaving most groundwater users out in the cold.”

Allen Merritt, the Department of Water Resources’ Southern Region director, said he’ll contact all of the protesters over the next couple of months to schedule meetings in advance of a formal hearing on Tuthill’s proposal.

The “conference would be to figure out where we are,” Merritt said. “It’s to see if there’s the possibility of some kind of settlement of the issue.”

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