Summary: The Snake River Aquifer is the lifeblood of southern Idaho, and intentional and careless activities at the Idaho National Laboratory have threatened it.
Background and Current Situation: Southern Idaho is on a high desert plain. But beneath 10,000 square miles of this desert flows the Snake River Aquifer. The aquifer contains as much water as Lake Erie, which could cover the entire state to a depth of four feet. It flows west from the shadow of the Tetons to Thousand Springs, where it rushes from the volcanic canyon wall to join the Snake River itself. There it supports a thriving aquaculture industry; 69 per cent of the trout farmed in the US are raised on this short stretch of the Snake River. Something like a million acres are irrigated with Snake River Aquifer water, including those that grow nearly a third of US potatoes. More important, the aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for nearly 300,000 people.
The Idaho National Laboratory sits on the upstream end of the aquifer in eastern Idaho. Water beneath the Site reaches the Magic Valley, one of the state’s most productive and populous regions, in a few decades. INL’s chemical and radioactive pollution has contaminated the aquifer. In fact, INL injected billions of gallons of waste directly into the aquifer. Most of the pollution cannot be removed and will disperse in Idaho’s drinking water. One cleanup effort uses microbes to consume TCE. Another ongoing effort is to vacuum organic solvent vapor from the soil at the burial grounds before it reaches the aquifer.
Update: Two of the most significant ongoing threats to the Snake River Aquifer are the burial grounds and the soil around the high-level waste tank farm, which has in turn contaminated a large pocket of perched water above the main aquifer. Decisions about burial ground and tank farm cleanup will be made within the year.
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