Potato Farmers

Potato Farmers

Bell Rapids, Idaho


Bell Rapids, Idaho

GREG BROWN: The snowpack drives the whole Snake River plain and Columbia Basin. Without the snow, these rivers would dry up and so would all the cities and towns and areas along the way. I mean there'd be nothing without the snowmelt. It's the beginning of everything.

Spring snowpack is predicted to decrease by more than half in the Columbia River Basin by 2100.
There will not be enough water for everyone.

Potato Farmers – Facing Climate Change

JOHN O'CONNER: Before it was taken out of sagebrush, my dad took us in the car out there to show us where it is that they were trying to make this happen. And I remember walking around the sagebrush going, this isn't a farm! What are you doing, you know?

The Bell Rapids Project was 25,000 acres of irrigated farmland that sat high above the Snake River.

JOHN: The idea was to make something happen where it had never happened before. Make a farm, make something that's good for the economy. Water rights were available out of the river.

CLIVE STRONG: And at that point in time, power rates were relatively inexpensive and so it made sense to lift this water up onto the plain and irrigate it. And the idea was primarily to put it into Idaho potatoes. It's a high value crop and when you hit it big, you hit it big and make a lot of money.

JOHN: Those first years boy, the expression was you can acquire a champagne taste on a beer budget. Because everybody kinda thought that everything was going to stay like that. And you start making decisions and you start borrowing money for equipment and you start thinking that the good times are just going to roll. They're not going to stop. And the good times did stop.

JOHN: The problem is when you start thinking about it, you knew power rates were going to have to go up.

GREG: The first year up there I think the power bill was $20 an acre. The last year we farmed it was about $180 an acre.

Less snowmelt will require tradeoffs between hydropower, salmon and farmers.

JOHN: So it was kind of a perfect storm of events that were taking place at the time.

The Nez Perce Tribe had water rights from the 1800s at Lewiston that were not being met. So the tribe wanted something for what they no longer received because the water doesn't go through there like it used to and the fish don't either. And then you had the whole adjudication process within the state of Idaho. There is not enough water for all the water rights that are on file right now. And it was a drought year. There was a low snow pack and so the stage was set.

CLIVE: So the arrangement we worked out with them was to basically buy the water rights off of the Bell Rapids Project. We agreed to pay $24,375,000. And what Bell rapids was going to do then was to turn the land back into dry land farming and to develop wind turbines on the property.

JOHN: Nobody in the State of Idaho had sold water rights back to the State ever before. How do you possibly plan for that?

Water is by far going to be the most important thing that is going to hold the value and make people change the way they do things. And it's already happening.

Potato farmers are facing climate change.