Watering Idaho: As The Treasure Valley Grows, Will There Be Enough Water?

Sep 23, 2016

A new neighborhood under construction in Meridian. That city could see around 350,000 residents by 2065. Water demand is expected to quadruple.
Credit Scott Graf / Boise State Public Radio

Kevin Vierra stands in his living room, admiring the Eagle home he bought in July. It’s full of alder wood floors and cabinets. The counters are granite. Outside, he looks over a small creek.

Vierra and his wife, Vicki, moved here from Manteca, California just three months after visiting a friend who’d already relocated to the area.  Vierra – fresh off a career as a police officer – had grown tired of his native state’s crime and traffic. Now, he uses trips to the airport, both there and here, as an example of how his quality of life has improved.

“[In California] We had to go to Sacramento,” he says. “It was about 80 miles. And a lot of traffic. Boise, I think, is 12 miles from here. We just picked somebody up the other day. It took us 15 minutes.”

Vierra appears ready to pinch himself at any minute. He says he’s in awe of the lifestyle he’s found in Eagle. The couple is one of five they know relocating to southwestern Idaho from other states.  

A few miles away in Meridian, Kyle Radek looks over a landscape that will soon help accommodate some of that new growth.

“Last year, this was a corn field,” he says. “This year it’s fallow, getting ready for homes.”

Radek works for the City of Meridian. Part of his job is to make sure there’s water for a rapidly-expanding population. About 90,000 people live here. By 2065, that number could nearly quadruple.

“And the corresponding water demand … for those people, we estimated 45 million gallons a day,” Radek says. “So that represents a 4 to 5 multiple of what we’re doing now.”

To better understand what the valley’s water demand will look like in 50 years, the panel in charge of managing Idaho’s water system commissioned a study. The Idaho Water Resource Board released last month a report that predicts an increase of about 240 percent in the amount of water the area will use for domestic, commercial, municipal and industrial (DCMI) purposes. The region’s population could increase by nearly 1 million residents.

Irrigation continues to account for the vast majority of water use in the Treasure Valley. Here, a man-made system waters a cornfield next to a parcel of land where new homes are being built.
Credit Scott Graf / Boise State Public Radio

That may sound huge, but Brian Patton, the chief of the board’s planning bureau, isn’t panicking.

“I don’t think it’s an immediate, serious problem,” Patton says. “But we do need to start planning for where it is that we go to accommodate this and figure out how we manage our water resources in the face of that growth.”

Patton says the Treasure Valley is much better off than many other urban areas in the West. With a large reservoir system and a big underground aquifer, there’s just more water here. Besides, between 80 and 90 percent of water used in the Boise area is for irrigation.  And as more cropland turns into subdivisions, the demands for irrigation water could fall, potentially freeing up more water to meet the growing DCMI demand. 

But some complained when this year’s water study failed to get a handle on that particular piece of the puzzle.

Jeff Fereday is a longtime water rights attorney in Boise.

“We are not attempting to account for, or find new uses for, the water that was dedicated to that former irrigation,” he says.

Fereday says without fully understanding how much of that water exists, the state can’t adequately plan its water future. At a minimum, he sees it as a blind spot for water planners. Much worse, he fears Boise River water rights could soon be grabbed - through the courts - by farmers downstream in Oregon and Washington.  

“The Supreme Court has not been kindly to a state in an interstate dispute that cannot show a very rigorous management of their water … and a lot of data showing how they keep track of how much water they have and where it’s going,” Fereday says.

And if the region loses water rights, it could face the possibility of having to meet increased demands with less water.

Meanwhile, back at the former cornfield that will soon be a Meridian subdivision, Kyle Radek grabs a hose hooked to his city’s newest test well, drilled way down in the Treasure Valley Aquifer.

“So here’s Zone 6, which is somewhere around 300 feet deep,” he says.

He opens a valve and water pours out on the ground. Radek says 20 years of monitoring has shown the aquifer can withstand much more demand.

Meridian's newest test well.
Credit Scott Graf / Boise State Public Radio

“We have a lot of water for the amount of people that live here,” he says. “We have a lot of water. We are water rich. And there’s room for more people.”

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