Imagine a day without water. Now imagine four or five months without water, and counting. Many residents in the Treasure Valley find themselves in the unenviable position of being
waterless on a well system that had worked just fine, until the water ran out. High-demand pumping doesn’t just affect residents on a well. Think of an aquifer as nature’s great big
underground storage tank, a convoluted maze of a container made of rock and sediment. Like any tank, it can be emptied, especially if it isn’t getting refilled. Groundwater is a precious
resource, and once an aquifer is pumped dry, it is often lost as a water source for good. Imagine water and wastewater bills getting more and more expensive. Imagine if all water in
Idaho became scarce and rationed. This prospect is not so far-fetched.
Wells at depths ranging from 75 feet to 120 feet have been running dry at an accelerating rate over the past four years, according to the residents experiencing running out of water firsthand.
The latest crash of dry wells in southwest Boise coincidentally turned up around the same time Suez pumped water from the Treasure Valley aquifer up to the new Avimor development north
of the city of Eagle earlier this year. Becky Goehring at the Department of Environmental Quality now recommends residential well depths of at least 170 feet. According to a recent water supply study, “some [municipal supply] wells have seen declines corresponding to recent production increases in those [municipal supply] wells.” A decline in water level, known as drawdown, commonly occurs when there is a change in pressure because water is being removed through pumping at deeper levels which pulls water down from upper aquifer levels. If the municipal supply wells see such declines, wouldn’t the shallower residential wells also? An expert with Ada County Development Services estimates the Treasure Valley aquifer is receding at a rate of six inches per year. Seventy percent of the water provided by Veolia, formerly Suez, comes from groundwater, and the percentage is higher for other water purveyors in the Treasure Valley.
Rural residents on 100% groundwater found themselves engulfed by urbanization with very little say in the explosion of growth. As open land disappears, less and less water trickles down to the aquifers. In fact, 14,093 building permits were issued since January 1, 2020, just in Ada County alone. The Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho speculates Ada County’s population — already at 511,973 according to the latest census7 — could explode to one million people by 2040. Where will the water come from? More building means more asphalt and more concrete, channeling rainwater and runoff to the rivers where water flows too fast to percolate through the soil to the water table. There are ways to build permeability into the construction plans, such as permeable asphalt or pavers, and plan for recharging the aquifer as part of the project to minimize impact, but as of now such actions are strictly voluntary.
Solving the problem of a dry well becomes incredibly expensive, and the cost is born by the homeowner, with the current high cost of living and while retailers are rationing gallon bottles of water. The cost of drilling can be upwards of $30,000-$50,000, and the cost of connecting to the local water purveyor has fetched quotes of up to $110,000 — with the closest company water line just around the corner and down the street according to one neighbor. No wonder some residents have had to sell their homes — with a dry well, at below market value, while paying property taxes at market value.
Residents reaching out to local, state, and federal agencies find themselves in a giant goose chase with each agency referring to another agency, often in effect receiving a collective shrug, even a “Wells dry up every year,” or “There’s no money in the budget for that,”10 at least in my experience. Didn’t the Governor recently allot considerable funds for water and waste water development out the state’s budget surplus? Ada County staff at the Commissioner’s office said none of that allotment came to Ada County, and staff at the Governor’s office did not return my messages. Could affected residents even depend on relief from the state, which is still charging a grocery tax? At least Ada County recently assigned one person to assess the dry well situation, so people having trouble with their well can email specifics to Zack Kirk of Ada County Development Services at firstname.lastname@example.org. So far, through his efforts, Ada County has agreed to fund bringing a municipal water line to certain streets identified in four main areas with dry wells. The plan is to begin breaking ground around mid-September of 2022. Once installed, it will be up to the homeowner to connect their property to main line to their property.
This is welcome relief to the residents in those areas, but what will happen when other wells run dry? What about in the future of water in Idaho, with the explosive rate of growth? Solving
complex problems benefits from a formal interdisciplinary approach. Idaho is very fortunate to have the depth of knowledge available in the experts working in state and local agencies,
expertise to which leaders will hopefully pay attention. The drumbeat of development keeps rolling at an ever-increasing rate, and state and local leaders can no longer afford to react to
problems rather than proactively planning for contingencies. The groundwater we are all relying on is too precious to take for granted. Dry wells are just the first symptom. Leaders
entrusted to effectively manage continued growth must take steps to preserve the aquifers, before it is too late.
1 https://boisedev.com/news/2022/04/04/avimor-idaho-water/, accessed online on August 1, 2022
2 Personal conservations by telephone with Becky Goehring between July – August 2022.
3 “Treasure Valley Water-Supply Options to Meet Projected Municipal Demand, prepared for Veolia Water Idaho, Inc. by HDR/SPF, published
May 23, 2022
4 Personal conversations by telephone with Zack Kirk, Engineer, Ada County Development Services, July – August 2022
5 https://www.veolianorthamerica.com/contact-us/find-office/boise-id; https://waterzen.com/water-providers/suez-water-idaho/
Accessed online on August 1, 2022
6 Personal conversations by phone with Margaret Carmel, BoiseDev Senior Reporter between June and July 2022, and on August 2,
b62a54a9-0f34-4c67-bbe9-9c78de759bb6, accessed online on August 1, 2022
9 Personal conversation by telephone with an IDWR representative on the afternoon of August 5, 2022, intentionally unnamed.
10 Personal conversation by telephone with Brian Daly, Director, Housing and Urban Development, Boise field office
11 Personal conversation by telephone with Zack Kirk, Engineer, Ada County Development Services, August 10, 2022
Note: This Op-Ed was submitted by Suzanne Knorr. Op-Eds do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of those at the Idaho Dispatch.