Lawmakers have advanced legislation to help state officials cap what are thought to be hundreds of artesian wells across southern Idaho in a plan that could help irrigators and a federally protected snail.
The Senate Resources and Environment Committee on Monday unanimously approved moving ahead with legislation that will alter a 1987 law with an expired cost-sharing provision.
Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman told lawmakers the change is needed to boost pressure in aquifers and avoid confusion about whether the state will partially pay for capping wells on private land. He said a cost-sharing provision that expired in 1992 needs to be removed from the 1987 statute.
“There was never any money appropriated for cost sharing,” Spackman said.
He said his agency has capped some artesian wells in some southwestern areas and found water pressure going up. An artesian well is one where natural pressure produces a constant flow of water without the need for pumps.
“As the pressure declines, then, of course, there’s less water that flows from the well,” Spackman said after leaving the meeting. “Many of those water rights holders who rely on those artesian pressures have had to place pumps in their wells so they can divert their water.”
He also said capping artesian wells could help the Bruneau hot springsnail. The snail lives in thermal springs in the Bruneau River in southwestern Idaho but declined after natural flows into the system also declined.
The species was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1993.
“It was really that extraction and that leakage (from artesian wells) that caused the declines in the pressure in the aquifer that ultimately led to the proposed listing,” said Spackman.
Some of the artesian wells are geothermal, with a temperature greater than 85 degrees, and young people have used at least one, Spackman said, as a hot spring to soak in during late-night parties.
By law, geothermal hot springs must first be used for their geothermal properties. Spackman said some older geothermal artesian wells are used just for irrigation, but those would be grandfathered in and could continue to be used for irritation.
Should the legislation continue to advance and ultimately change the 1987 law, Spackman said he’d likely start a conversation with landowners with artesian wells.
“I think the first action will be to go out and sponsor some public meetings,” he said, “start talking to some of the landowners and the owners of the wells. Tell them we need to inventory and tell them there’s a responsibility. We need to get control of the resource so that these wells aren’t leaking and wasting water.”
He said the process of finding and capping hundreds of artesian wells scattered across southern Idaho will likely take years if not decades.