Water Resources Research Act Program

Details for Project ID 2017ID216B

Idaho Dairy Industry Vulnerability to Long-term Drought

Institute: Idaho
Year Established: 2017 Start Date: 2017-03-01 End Date: 2018-02-28
Total Federal Funds: $14,961 Total Non-Federal Funds: $30,231

Principal Investigators: Barbara Cosens, Mark Solomon

Abstract: The dairy industry in Idaho has increased its production tenfold since 1987 and now is the third ranked state in the nation for milk production and the largest agriculture sector by commodity value in Idaho. Agricultural producers have shifted their crop selection to provide feedstock for the dairies, with alfalfa hay and haylage now ranked as the third most valuable agricultural commodity in the state, eclipsing Idaho’s famous potatoes (USDA NASS 2015). Alfalfa is a water intensive crop demanding up to 46 inches of water per season. Water supply for irrigated agriculture on the East Snake Plain (ESP) of southern Idaho – the heart of the state’s agricultural industry – is already over-allocated: a historic 2015 agreement between senior surface water right holders and more junior ground water users required ground water users to immediately reduce overall withdrawals by 12.3%. As water supply is already delimited, increasing water for dairy feedstock means shifting cropping patterns from traditional crops such as potatoes to alfalfa, potentially changing the underlying distribution of surface water and ground water rights devoted to alfalfa production. Overarching the entire issue is whether or not climate change will reduce water available to satisfy senior water rights. Embedded within that question is who would be affected by a senior’s water call. It is assumed, based on the concentration of alfalfa production in the six counties comprising Idaho’s Magic Valley (Cassia, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka, Twin Falls) with its high concentration of junior groundwater irrigators, that alfalfa growers may be exposed to a senior’s call, and as such, increase the vulnerability of Idaho’s dairy industry to long-term drought. This project will mine existing data sources to determine the priority of water rights associated with the cropping of alfalfa in the Magic Valley of Idaho and assess whether the priority of the rights indicates potential vulnerability of Idaho’s dairy industry to water right administration induced by long-term drought.