Boise, Idaho (AP) — Legislation that supporters say is critical to preserving a historic water agreement between water users intended to prevent declines in a giant Idaho aquifer relied on by farmers and cities has passed out of a Senate committee.
The Senate Resources and Environment Committee voted unanimously Monday to send a bill to the Senate for possible amendments. A similar bill failed on a tie vote the previous week, but the committee voted to reconsider the bill Monday after several technical changes.
The 2015 agreement is intended to stabilize the level of the Lake Erie-sized Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer so that surface water users and groundwater pumpers have a reliable source of water.
The legislation would give the state additional authority to cut off water to groundwater pumpers who ignore the agreement.
Idaho Ground Water Appropriators Inc. Executive Director Lynn Tominaga told Capital Press the legislation, if amended as envisioned, has the support of the Idaho Department of Water Resources, the water-user community and agricultural advocacy group Food Producers of Idaho.
Groundwater users meet settlement terms through a combination of reducing aquifer usage, recharging the aquifer and delivering water to surface users. Groundwater districts can place a financial assessment on members who do not put their fair share of water toward settlement requirements. Districts in turn buy stored or natural-flow water to be returned to the aquifer, which works when supplies are adequate.
Senate Bill 1056 would enable the districts to ask IDWR to enforce non-payment of assessments or non-compliance with the mitigation plan, meaning the department could order reduced water usage. Concerns expressed in earlier hearings included that the department could take on unknown financial risk and liability, and call for curtailments even in years when water is plentiful.
Tominaga said less than 5 percent of groundwater district members do not comply with the settlement agreement, but “to make the settlement work, we have to have complete participation.”
To sustain the settlement agreement, the legislation would take effect as irrigation season starts April 1. But to allow for preparation, districts could not seek IDWR enforcement until after Jan. 1, 2020. A purpose statement attached to SB 1056 said the legislation could not be used to enforce settlement-related obligations incurred before the 2019 irrigation season.
If the full Senate does not approve SB 1056, “then we will have to come back another year and try,” Tominaga said.