- Xavier Ward
Driving south down Highway 55 into Boise, towering mountains give way to the Foothills, where rivers and streams follow the road, right until traffic spits out into the Dry Creek Valley, where heritage agricultural land meets modern development. It's also the site of Boise Hunter Homes' latest planned community: Dry Creek Ranch.
Once approved for 3,500 homes, the development company now plans 1,800 units with a mix of single-family residential, multi-family residential and a small number of commercial units. Despite protests and a missed deadline, the former Ada County Commission approved an updated development agreement in 2018, saying its hands were tied.
The developer, for the most part, has the go-ahead on developing the area. As long as Boise Hunter Homes meets the requirements laid out for it, building the Dry Creek Ranch community will go forward. Questions have arisen, however, as to whether the local aquifer can sustain an additional 1,800 homes in the area.
"Water's a big deal in this valley," said Leslie Nona, who runs a small farm in Dry Creek Valley. "If our wells are dropping—they're being monitored—then that is an injury to a senior water right user."
Nona is part of the Dry Creek Valley Neighborhood Association, now a part of the Dry Creek Valley Coalition, a protest group that has fought the development since its early days. She said she and her neighbors are concerned for the vitality of the Dry Creek area as the development moves forward. In 2010, existing water users and development company JMM Dry Creek signed a water rights agreement, according to which the senior water users have priority over the junior JMM Dry Creek water rights.
That agreement has since transferred to Boise Hunter Homes, and the company is now held to the same conditions as JMM Dry Creek. The water rights agreement states that aquifer sustainability and potential for injury to senior water right holders has not been established, and Nona and her rural neighbors are concerned that they're at risk of losing more than pristine open space with this development.
"Your private property right can't infringe on my property," Nona said.
Boise Hunter Homes, for its part, believes there is plenty of water in the area for the development and its neighbors, and is using measurements from a water engineering firm to back up its position. The company has been monitoring water levels in 16 area wells, and measurements from SPF Water Engineering show those levels have actually risen by 2 feet in the Dry Creek Valley since it began.
Jim Hunter, owner of Boise Hunter Homes, told Boise Weekly the company is creating a sustainable development that will have less of an impact to the aquifer than existing agricultural operations. Currently, feed corn and alfalfa are grown in the area commercially.
"It's very clairvoyant, it's very transparent and they [measure] it twice a year," Hunter said. "The ground water to date has been nothing but getting better."
The original development from JMM Dry Creek estimated it would use 3,700 acre feet of water per year. One acre foot of water is equal to 325,851 gallons. The Dry Creek Ranch community expects to use roughly 1,900 acre feet per year. Hunter said the development has a new sewage treatment plant, which recycles wastewater from sewage for irrigation use, providing an additional 400 acre feet of water per year for irrigation purposes, lowering the total impact to 1,500 acre feet, Hunter said.
Hunter said Dry Creek Ranch, unlike many other developments in the more rural areas of the county, takes open space and agricultural heritage into account.
"It's truly a sustainable community in our opinion," Hunter said. "The issue of farmland being displaced, we're a tiny drop in the bucket."
The development will contain 467 acres of open space and lots that allow for equestrian facilities. It also has a small organic farmer, whom Boise Hunter Homes pays full time and delivers produce to neighborhood residents.
Boise Hunter Homes isn't just monitoring water levels: It's required to submit reports to the Idaho Department of Water Resources. A number of wells are metered, and if Boise Hunter Homes is unable to produce sufficient evidence that the health of the aquifer is maintained, the department can take action.
"What we did with the permit that we issued initially to JMM Dry Creek... We issued that in 2010 and we had some conditions on that permit that essentially implemented a mitigation plan where they would reduce their irrigation use on the existing water right as they phased in their municipal use," said Shelley Keen, Water Rights Permit Manager at IDWR.
Overall, Keen said Boise Hunter Homes has hit all the marks. The company has submitted one extension for the agreement to show beneficial use, and can request another extension to 2025, which Hunter said will likely happen.
So far water use in the valley has not shown an injury to the aquifer, but fewer than 100 of the 1,800 homes have been built.
A significant condition of the water rights agreement was how residential water use would be phased in, Keen said. As residents move into the area, that water use has to displace the agricultural use, meaning the overall water use should not increase just because residents are moving to the region.
"We're fairly confident that the conditions that we put on the permit should be enough," Keen said.