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Lawmakers finding new funding for aquifer plan

Lawmakers finding new funding for aquifer plan

Idaho Freedom Foundation staff
March 8, 2010

The Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) would see a $1.5 million reduction in state funding in the next state budget, but lawmakers are working on a way to fund $1.2 million for a long-term eastern Idaho aquifer plan. State water managers had asked for $3 million for the proposal, but said $1 million would be enough to continue work on improving the aquifer.

The money would go to the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer (ESPA) Comprehensive Aquifer Management Plan (CAMP). The ESPA CAMP is a 20-year plan to boost water levels around the eastern part of the Snake River, which is the water source for a third of the Idaho population. The plan calls for adding 600,000 acre-feet of water to the aquifer. One acre-foot of water is enough to fill a swimming pool the size of a football field one foot deep. Water rights disputes have gone through the courts for decades. Negotiations on this plan started in 2006, with Idaho lawmakers approving the 20-year plan in April.

“What the CAMP process is trying to do is stabilize the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer," said Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot. “This is one of the most important things that the state has to do is stabilize that aquifer.” He said that if the state delays the program and has several years of light rainfall, Idaho would severely suffer as a result. Bair also said that while the CAMP only affects one region in Idaho, it could expand to the rest of the state. “It does affect everyone in Idaho. It started in the eastern plane with lawsuits, but it will be in the Treasure Valley [and] north Idaho.”

Gov. Butch Otter called for $1 million in federal stimulus to go to the CAMP in the next budget year, but that money is already targeted for other programs, including public education. “Accidentally, we spent it,” Bair said. “And it really was an accident.” Bair said the $1.2 million would come from another source, the repayment of a $10 million loan for the Pristine Springs fish farm near Twin Falls. The Idaho Water Resource Board made that loan in 2008 in partnership with Twin Falls and two local ground water districts.

Bair said the purchase of Pristine Springs helped mitigate lawsuits that state and local governments were facing. Currently, $1.2 million of the loan has already been repaid, and the next of nine similar payments will come in September. That money could go to continue the aquifer management plan. “This money we’ve got here in this fund will work just fine,” Bair said.

The $1.2 million shift wasn’t part of the $20 million IDWR budget approved by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) Monday. Bair said he will introduce a resolution on transferring the Pristine Springs money later this week.

The JFAC vote on IDWR’s budget was 19-1, with Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, casting a no vote. She said the state should spend that loan money elsewhere. “At a time like this, that would save a lot of lives in mental health, substance abuse, or medical services,” she said. “I think we might want to take a closer look at the money.”

IDWR’s $20 million budget for the next fiscal year, starting in July, would be a 9.4 percent overall reduction. Slightly more than half of that budget comes from the state general fund. JFAC approved trimming $1.59 million, or 12.9 percent, of IDWR’s general fund spending.

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