Water Experts Weigh In on Magic Valley Energy Wind Project Lava Ridge
Perched atop the Snake River Basin Aquifer, Southern Idaho’s access to a generous water supply has shaped the area, creating the magic in the Magic Valley moniker, attracting economic and individual growth, and sustaining the lifestyle Idahoans value most.
But what could be at stake for this precious resource as growth occurs around the region, especially regarding wind energy projects like Lava Ridge, a 1000+ megawatt facility proposed in Lincoln, Jerome, and Minidoka counties?
According to water engineering and geology experts who have dedicated their careers to understanding Southern Idaho’s groundwater resources, the answer isn’t complicated or concerning.
Wind Energy Projects Offer Low Water Usage Rates
Wind energy projects are an excellent investment in regions sensitive to water supply constraints thanks to their minimal water requirements that allow facilities to be constructed and operated sustainably for the long term without concerns that further drought conditions will threaten their ability to provide jobs and contribute to the local economy.
The Lava Ridge Project is undergoing a stringent Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The draft EIS will be released in 2023 and will include answers to questions that have been raised by the public.
But clarity on water concerns can easily be addressed before the draft EIS by resident experts, Dave Tuthill, co-owner of Idaho Water Engineering and former Director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources, and Shawn Willsey, Distinguished Professor of Geology at College of Southern Idaho.
The Lava Ridge Wind Proposal Includes No New Incremental Water Use
The proposed Lava Ridge project area is aptly named for the thick basalt rock made of stacked lava flows that characterize the desert area shared by the three counties.
“Basalt is robust. It’s made of multiple layers of sturdy material,” said Willsey. “We have this amazing stack of strong volcanic rock, and as you go down deeper, the rocks get warmer, which is why we can feel earthquakes in the region, but aren’t an area that generates earthquakes.”
The proposed Lava Ridge project’s application to the BLM includes drilling up to six wells in the project area for use during the two-year construction phase and ongoing facility operations.
The water required to support construction activities will not add to the cumulative use of water in the region, drawing instead from previously permitted sources already allocated for use, such as those available through rental from the Water Supply Bank.
“This aquifer supports the irrigation of hundreds of thousands of acres. Specifically, 200,000 irrigated acres in Jerome, Lincoln and Minidoka counties,” said Tuthill. “This project needs 150 acre-feet per year for two years of construction – a total of 300 acre-feet. That’s equal to pausing water use on 75 acres of farmland for two years. It’s minimal.”
Water will be used for civil construction tasks like developing roads and work areas, dust abatement, reclamation, and batching concrete for turbine foundations. Once in operation, the project will have minimal ongoing water requirements. Water usage would be below the de minimis threshold established under Idaho water law.
Will the aquifer be affected by construction or vibrations from the turbines?
“We don’t even have groundwater on the north side of the river in this area until you get down to about 250 to 350 feet, on average,” said Willsey. “It’s pretty sturdy material, so I wouldn’t expect that during the construction phase or once they’re in place, the rock would be impacted by all the turbines spinning or tower vibrations. A lot of that vibrational energy, I would assume would be dissipated in the base and not be transmitted very far into the rock. And the rock is okay to be shaken like that. It’s not going to crack it and break it.”
A hydrogeologic analysis of the project area done in 2021 shows the first encountered water zones in the vicinity of the six proposed wells range from 235 to 665 feet.
“The aquifer in this area is highly transmissive,” Tuthill explains. “You can think of it like a big bathtub. The drawdown from one well to another well is almost negligible. It’s a huge aquifer and the water requirements for this project are extremely minor relative to the aquifer and relative to any other water use.”
Tuthill is also quick to point out that any new wells may be drilled only after obtaining a permit and performed by a licensed well driller – a standard in place to protect the aquifer.
“The proposed well areas must undergo a modeling process to ensure the new wells will not injure the aquifer,” he said. “The margin must show close to zero impact to be able to proceed with a new well drill.”
How Does the Water Supply Bank Work?
According to the Idaho Department of Water Resources, “the Water Supply Bank is a water exchange program operated by the Idaho Water Resource Board (IWRB; Board), through the Director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR), in association with water districts and IWRB-appointed local rental committees, to facilitate the acquisition and voluntary exchange of water rights, for new and supplemental water uses.
In other words, water rights can be leased from a willing seller near the project area. The seller would pause their water usage for the two-year period to allow for the needed water for construction.
Leasing water from a willing seller is not a new incremental use.
Will this impact our groundwater?
Wind turbine technology has increasingly become more efficient, and with proper maintenance, the turbines should operate at peak performance with very little risk of releasing contaminants. Construction projects must also have strict procedures and protocols to avoid accidental contamination.
“The amount of cars on the highway with oil seeping out of them is massively more than the amount of oil in these turbines,” Tuthill said. “These are not reasons for concern.”
While contaminants may take a long time to seep into the groundwater, Willsey cautions all industries and individuals to be mindful of the chemicals, pesticides, and ongoing industry practices that impact the water quality.
“The aquifer is in pretty good shape even though we’ve already changed the chemistry of the aquifer because of our current practices,” he said. “But based on the short construction period, this isn’t a concern. Good companies have protocols and mitigation plans in place to avoid contamination.”
The Conclusion – Water Worries Should Simmer
“I have zero concerns about this project based on what I know about the construction process,” Willsey said. “I have no concerns that this would adversely impact the aquifer or our groundwater resource.”
And as Willsey explains, turning on the lights creates an impact somewhere.
“We already have wind energy throughout the Snake River Plain. Everything comes at a cost. If you want to turn on the lights, where do you want that energy to come from? If it comes from a nuclear power plant, there are risks there. If it’s coming from solar, that takes up a lot of ground; if it’s hydropower, that’s damming up a river and has an environmental impact. Creating energy means you have to give up something to get it. The climate is changing. That’s not debatable. That’s a fact,” he said. “The controversy is should we be actively involved with trying to mitigate that and make it better for everyone or should we just just let it run its course?”