Fremont Madison Irrigation District (FMID) serves 285,000 acres of land in Eastern Idaho, and is also responsible for groundwater recharge and surface water management in its area. In this interview, Irrigation Leader’s editor-in-chief, Kris Polly, speaks with Aaron Dalling, the executive director of Fremont Madison Irrigation District, about his district’s role in managing the region’s rivers, recharging the aquifer, and delivering water to agricultural users.
Kris Polly: Please tell us tell us about your background.
Aaron Dalling: I grew up on a small farm just outside of St. Anthony, Idaho, where our office is located; we grew wheat, barley, and alfalfa and raised cattle. I went to school at Brigham Young University–Idaho and obtained a degree in agricultural science and natural resources. I then worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for 12 years in both Idaho and Utah. In January of 2017, I was hired by Fremont Madison Irrigation District as the assistant executive director. I shadowed Dale Swensen for a year, and then took over as executive director when he retired. I learned a lot from Dale. People often commented on how good he was at working through conflicts. He had a calming presence and was able to talk people through issues.
Kris Polly: How many years did Dale Swensen spend at the district?
Aaron Dalling: He was with the district for a full 40 years. He started in January 1978 and retired in January 2018.
Kris Polly: Please describe the district and its service area.
Aaron Dalling: Fremont Madison Irrigation District was established in 1935 in order to contract with the Bureau of Reclamation to build storage reservoirs in the Henrys Fork of the Snake River watershed. Our total service area is approximately 285,000 acres. It covers parts of 3 counties. The main cash crop is potatoes, followed by wheat, barley, and alfalfa.
Kris Polly: Where does your water come from?
on the Henrys Fork and Grassy Lake Reservoir on the Fall River. We also deliver water from the Henrys Fork to the Teton River through the Cross-Cut Canal. FMID does have some groundwater rights; we have 9 deep wells that we can use to pump over 100 cubic feet per second. We only use these wells in dry years—if our allocation in the reservoirs is low, we can use them to supplement our needs. Other than that, FMID is a surface-water entity.
We do work closely with the groundwater districts in our area, and actually manage the Henrys Fork Groundwater District out of our office. The Henrys Fork Groundwater District was formed to allow groundwater users to mitigate for their use of groundwater. Groundwater users are responsible for renting surface water and recharging it into the aquifer or delivering it downriver; they can also mitigate through simple reductions in pumping.
Kris Polly: How many employees does FMID have?
Aaron Dalling: We have three employees. We are set up a little differently than most irrigation districts. We don’t hold natural-flow water rights. We provide supplemental storage water to about 40 canal companies, which have their own natural-flow water rights, ditch riders, and water masters. We do work closely with the water masters from the canal companies—we’re talking to them daily and they’re in our office all the time—but they’re not actually employees of FMID. Our job is to deliver storage water from the reservoirs to their headgates on the river. We’re the only irrigation district on the Henrys Fork, so we work closely with Reclamation to manage river levels on the Henrys Fork and its tributaries, the Fall River and the Teton River.
Kris Polly: What are FMID’s top issues?
Aaron Dalling: One issue at the forefront in Idaho is the 2015 settlement agreement between the surface water users in south-central Idaho and the groundwater users throughout the Eastern Snake River Plain. The surface water irrigators in that area benefit from large springs that return water to the river, so they have the same water source as the groundwater irrigators. The settlement agreement requires groundwater users to reduce pumping or to offset it by recharging water into the aquifer. The Idaho Water Resource Board has stepped in to help make this agreement successful by funding aquifer-recharge projects and providing financial incentives for surface water irrigation entities to run water for the purpose of recharging the aquifer. We oversee most of the aquifer recharge within Fremont Madison’s boundaries. We completed over 130,000 acre-feet of recharge in 2017 and another 90,000 acre-feet in 2018.
Kris Polly: How does the recharge take place?
Aaron Dalling: A lot of the recharge is funded by the state. There’s also private recharge, in which groundwater districts contract with us to run recharge water to offset their required pumping reductions. During the canals’ off
season, when they’re not irrigating, they can divert water into their canals and allow it to sink into the ground as aquifer recharge. They receive some payment for that, which helps them with operations and maintenance and in keeping assessments as low as possible.
Kris Polly: What other methods are used for recharge? Are the canal companies flooding farmland?
Aaron Dalling: They normally don’t flood farmland; they recharge through the canal channels themselves. A lot of canal systems also have ponds connected to their system that were used historically to bring up the subwater levels for flood irrigation. Now we put water in these ponds and canal channels during the off season and allow it to sink into the ground and recharge the aquifer.
We also recently worked with Egin Bench Canal Company to obtain funding from the state’s Water Resource Board to build a canal approximately 3 miles long with a capacity of 120 cubic feet per second to run water out into the desert and allow it to sink into the aquifer. The water floods an area of about 200 acres belonging to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that we have a right-of-way easement for. That 200-acre area has been full of water for most of the past 2 years. We are coming off of a couple of good water years, but since the middle of November 2018, we haven’t had water available for aquifer recharge. We are also working with BLM to expand the right of way. We should be able to flood about 300 acres in coming years. It’s currently sagebrush. That’s something we’ve done to try to make the settlement agreement work.
Kris Polly: What are other top issues for the district?
Aaron Dalling: Something we’re always working on, and that has been an issue ever since the failure of the Teton Dam, is managing irrigation on the Teton River. It seems to have become an even bigger challenge over the past few years. The upper waters of the Teton River are just across the mountain from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the town has started to sprawl into the Teton Valley on the Idaho side. Historically, a lot of that area was flood irrigated. The farmers there had junior water rights, but they would flood irrigate during high water in the spring.
That water would recharge the aquifer and slowly make its way back to the river late in the summer. A lot of that ground has now been developed and is no longer irrigated, so the water comes down the river in the spring and we don’t see it again. When late summer comes, that water is long gone, so the late summer flows in the Teton have diminished. The only means we have to deliver storage water to the Teton River is through the Cross-Cut Canal. It delivers water from the Henrys Fork and can be used to pull storage water from Island Park Reservoir and Grassy Lake Reservoir and send it to the Teton River, but it hasn’t always been adequate over the last several years. One of our biggest ongoing issues is trying to figure out a way to better manage the Teton River.
Kris Polly: Tell us about the Marysville pipeline being installed in your area.
Aaron Dalling: The Marysville Canal Company has been installing gravity-pressured pipelines for several years to replace earthen canals. There are 5 phases to the project: 3 have been installed and the 4th phase is going in now and should be done by June 1. There will be one more after that. To date, they have installed over 30 miles of pipeline. This 4th phase will include close to 20 additional miles of pipeline. The pipelines range from 54 inches in diameter down to 4 inches at the end. The total cost of the 4th phase is about $11 million. Marysville Canal Company partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and obtained some funding for the project through them. For the remaining portion, they have obtained a loan through the Idaho Water Resource Board, which they will repay over time.
The overall purpose of the pipeline is to conserve water in a leaky system and to save energy by eliminating several pumps. The whole area is underlain with basalt rock, which comes right up to the surface and contains a lot of fractures. Marysville Canal loses a lot of water as a result. This will really help.
Kris Polly: As a relatively new manager, what has been the most helpful thing you have learned?
Aaron Dalling: One thing I learned from Dale Swensen was to pay attention to the little things. There are so many things coming at you that it’s easy to miss the little things. If you can pay close attention to them, it will help you anticipate what might be coming next.