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Bill would allow farmers to be paid for improving water quality

Sean Ellis

Capital Press

A proposal that has been tabled for this year would allow farmers and ranchers to be paid to help other entities such as cities meet federally mandated water quality standards. Bill supporters plan to bring it back next year.

BOISE — A proposal that would allow Idaho farmers to be paid to help achieve water quality standards has been shelved for this year but it could be back in 2015.

A bill that would have created a framework in Idaho for water quality pollutant trading to take place passed the Senate 34-1 but was held in the House because of concerns it could create a cap-and-trade system.

The bill would not create such a system, said Roger Batt, executive director of the Idaho Heartland Coalition, a group of farming organizations that is pushing the bill.

Instead, he said, it would set up a system that would allow cities and other large pollutant dischargers to pay farmers and ranchers to adopt practices that help them meet their federally mandated water quality standards.

Those entities are required to have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit that limits how much of certain pollutants they can discharge into waterways to meet water quality standards.

“This would allow (them) to pay farmers or ranchers so those standards can be met,” Batt said. “It creates a win-win situation.”

New federal phosphorus standards for NPDES permit holders are going to cost cities tens of millions of dollars to achieve, he said. Under a trading framework, they could pay farmers to install sprinkler systems or adopt other best management practices to reduce phosphorus runoff into a water body.

“It reduces costs for the city and it helps farmers clean up their discharges into the river; hopefully, it benefits everybody,” said Idaho Irrigation Pumpers Association Executive Director Lynn Tominaga.

Batt said bill supporters will focus on educating people about its purpose and how it works the rest of this year and hope to bring it back during the 2015 legislative session.

Jim Werntz, the Environmental Protection Agency's Idaho operations officer, said the agency is encouraging this type of trading framework.

But certain administrative obstacles remain before such a system can be implemented, he added. “The concept is alive and well. But the devil is in the details.”

Werntz said there are a lot of opportunities in Idaho for farmers and ranchers to help NPDES permit holders achieve their water quality standards.

Reducing phosphorus runoff from fields is one of the most promising ways farmers can help, he said, but they could also help wastewater treatment plants achieve water temperature standards.

Those plants must reduce the temperature of effluent before it re-enters waterways, which can be costly, Werntz said.

Under a water quality pollutant trading framework, they could achieve those standards by paying landowners to grow shade canopy along a river.

“Once such a framework is in place, there is the potential for trading to happen,” Werntz said.



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