On May 31, the Idaho Department of Water Resources issued an irrigation water curtailment order. It requires groundwater users who are not in compliance with state mitigation plans to join a plan or face curtailment of their irrigation water for the 2024 growing season.

Nelson paige
Freelance Writer
Paige Nelson is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

Stephanie Mickelsen has been at the forefront of the state’s agricultural water management for more than 30 years. She’s one of the state's largest potato farmers and serves as a state representative for District 32A, which basically covers Bonneville County. She is also the chair of the Idaho Groundwater Appropriators (IGWA) – a coalition of groundwater districts.

During a meeting of the City Club of Idaho Falls on May 16, Mickelsen addressed Idaho’s water issues and how eastern Idaho farmers are working to better manage the resource.

Giving a brief history of water use since the 1870s, when pioneers dug the first canals, she made a point to note that the state’s first operational canals were located in eastern Idaho. Most surface water rights were established between 1900 and 1955. By the 1960s, groundwater pumping developed and continued to expand with the advent of pivot irrigation technology – putting groundwater users junior to surface users.

“Now when farmers put their investments in the groundwater, they believed that they were in two separate, distinct systems. They never thought that they would tie to the surface system,” explained Mickelsen.


In the early 2000s, some court cases ruled the two sources of water are conjunctive to each other, meaning one affects the other; therefore, they have to be conjunctively managed, she said.

According to the state constitution, water is managed under the priority doctrine, “First in time, first in right.”

“The priority doctrine does say we need to beneficially use the resource. And then you end up with this court case that says that basically every canal out there is going to be senior to any groundwater user. So then it puts groundwater users in a perilous situation because now they’re basically kind of controlled by the whims of the surface water canals,” stated Mickelsen.

Fast forward to 2015, when the Surface Water Coalition (SWC) and the IGWA agreed to a water use plan. There were several provisions, and one was that each groundwater user would be required to reduce their water use by 13% according to their historical use. In addition, collectively, the groundwater districts believed they were required to allocate an additional 205,000-acre feet of water per year for recharging the aquifer.

Mickelsen says the groundwater districts worked hard to meet the agreed reductions. They purchased water from irrigation districts during wet years, when water was plentiful, and tried to help their members understand their water reduction obligations.

She noted that between 2021 and 2022 the aquifer recharge amount became a hard number at 240,000-acre feet.

“Here we were, we thought we had an obligation of 205,000. It suddenly becomes 240,000, and not only that, they figured out our usage based upon an average, but they won't let us do our reductions based upon an average. So when a drier year hits, that reduction could become 30 to 50 percent.

“As groundwater users, our usage compared to before 2015 to now, we have reduced over 2.6-million-acre feet for an average of over 325,000-acre feet per year since we entered into this agreement with the Surface Water Coalition,” said Mickelsen.

However, according to the SWC calculations, the groundwater users hadn’t met their obligation, and in August of 2022, around 500,000 acres of groundwater rights holders were notified they would be curtailed or shut off because the senior water rights holders would be short of water, otherwise.

Mickelsen argued the senior water rights holders in the Magic Valley aren’t doing their due diligence to efficiently use the water they are claiming to be short of.

“We went up in a helicopter and actually took pictures, and they had 24 or 25 waterfalls, I believe, where water was just booming over the edge of the canyon.

“And they’re claiming that they’re short!” said an exasperated Mickelsen.

She said, at that point, she decided to take the case to the public. “There’s a real problem here when there’s water bustling over the canyon edge, and they are saying they’re short of water.”

While the debate continues about which side needs to up their water management game, Mickelsen said there is some good news.

She used the Butte Market Lake system as an example of aquifer recharge working at its finest.

“One of the beauties about the Butte Market Lake system is that when they look at that water that goes in the ground, that water will stay in the system for five years, about 60 to 70 percent of it will stay in the aquifer longer than five years.”

Innovative water management practices

If we want to create a vibrant, drought-resilient system, said Mickelsen, we have to put water into the aquifer at sites where it will stay for a long time, so we can build that aquifer up. The area west of Roberts, Idaho, is a great opportunity for that.

To do this, they drilled a large injection well, lined it all the way down and now siphon water from the end of the Butte Market Lake canal. Regulations stipulate that all wells within a few miles of the injection well site must be tested every 30 days. Mickelsen said those tests have proven the groundwater is actually cleaner where an injection well is running.

Mickelsen said they are also exploring ways to increase the capacity of existing canals.

“You get most of your runoff in a six-week period in the spring. We have to have systems that can take those large volumes of water in a very short period of time,” she said.

Additionally, on her own farm, she and her family took their mitigation plan seriously and have invested heavily in technology that allows them to be extremely careful with their water usage.

About 10 years ago, Mickelsen Farms began using telemetry. It’s a way of communicating with the pivot. Via a smartphone app, the pivot tells the user how much water is being put down, its speed, what the water pressure is at the end gun and more.

“We realized that by getting laser-focused on how much water we were putting on our crop, there were lots of savings. It was a savings of power. It was a savings of inputs like your fertilizers and chemicals and things like that. And when we did that, within the first year, we were saving 25 to 30 percent of our water,” she stated.

The Mickelsen family took their telemetry information and paired it with the evapotranspiration needs of the plant using an aggregate government website designed in connection with NASA.

“In the course of a plant’s life, especially on a determinate crop, it doesn't matter if I applied 50 inches or I applied 30 inches of water. It only needs what the plant needs to grow, to have potato babies and then move on,” she explained. “If they had too much one week, then the next week, we’d probably back them off a little bit.”

Mickelsen said investing in this technology has made her farm more effective and efficient, and she hopes other farmers, both surface and groundwater users, will adopt new ways to better manage Idaho’s water resources.