BOISE — Idaho’s largest water user group hailed legislation that will provide $15 million for various water supply improvement projects around the state.
The bill passed both the House and Senate unanimously and was signed into law by Gov. Butch Otter on March 7.
The legislature approved a similar amount of money for water projects in 2008 but most of the money was swept away with the recession.
“That money has now been restored by the governor and the legislature,” said Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association.
IWUA represents almost 300 irrigation districts and canal companies and other water supply groups that manage water supplies for more than 2 million acres of Idaho farmland.
Otter requested the money in his annual state of the state address in January.
“As I told legislators in my state of the state address, actively managing our precious water resources represents a critical investment in our capacity for responsible future growth,” Otter said in a news release.
The $15 million in one-time money includes $4 million to develop more recharge capacity in the 10,000-square-mile Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer and $2 million to fund the remaining environmental compliance studies needed for a proposed dam on the Weiser River that would provide an additional 800,000 acre-feet of water storage capacity.
It also includes $1.5 million to complete a feasibility study for a project that would raise Arrowrock Reservoir on the Boise River system by 74 feet, which would create an additional 300,000 acre-feet of storage capacity.
Otter’s plan provides $2.5 million for a project to raise the Island Park Reservoir spillway by 3 feet and create an additional 29,000 acre-feet of storage.
Semanko also praised the legislature for passing a bill that redirects $5 million a year generated by the state’s cigarette tax to projects designed to stabilize the state’s aquifers.
That revenue stream will ensure there is money to implement the projects financed by the $15 million allocation, he said.
The $5 million in ongoing funding “is a game-changer,” he said. “It’s a big deal.”
Semanko said both streams of money will enable the state to fund projects that will help ensure Idaho’s agricultural industry has the water it needs to remain the state’s top industry.
He said Idaho’s economy and social fabric are all linked to the availability of adequate irrigation supplies.
“Without water, we don’t exist,” he said. “We’re just desert and sagebrush and rocks. That’s what we were before irrigation and that’s what we would be without irrigation.”