Last month, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure package. Idaho Sens. Risch and Crapo voted to support the package.
Since then, several have expressed frustration — and, at times, anger — at our senators for casting their supportive vote. As a significant element of this legislation impacts Idaho’s water user community, I offer some perspective.
Idaho is an ag state. Wherever you go, you will see evidence of the state’s thriving agricultural roots. Idaho is a high desert climate. Absent the development of water infrastructure, there simply isn’t enough water to go around. Beginning in the late 1800s, Idaho’s water infrastructure was developed. Dams, headgates, canals, laterals, ditches and drains were constructed. Today, these facilities are so common that we often take them for granted. Yet without them, Idaho ag would not exist.
Republican, Democrat, Independent, rural or urban, we all have one thing in common: we need access to a safe and reliable supply of water. Today, Idaho’s water user community faces several challenges, including aging infrastructure and improving the reliability of Idaho’s water supply for every Idahoan.
Much of Idaho’s water infrastructure is over 80 years old. Dams constructed in the last century now need repairs. Headgates and diversion structures must be modernized. Canals and laterals need to be lined to minimize risks of failure. Concrete tunnels and siphons are starting to crumble. Unfortunately, the costs of these repairs are significant — quickly outpacing even the most frugal entities’ financial reserves.
Additionally, water users are working to improve the reliability of their water supplies. Lining canals, installing automated headgates, developing groundwater recharge sites, cloud seeding and other actions conserve and protect our water supplies for future generations.
So, how does the infrastructure package address these needs?
• Aging Infrastructure: The legislation puts $3.2 billion into an aging infrastructure account, to provide low interest, long-term loans to help address water infrastructure needs.
• Water Storage, Groundwater Storage and Conveyance: The legislation would provide $1.15 billion for the construction of water infrastructure under the Water Infrastructure Improvements for our Nation Act (WIIN Act). Idaho has been a beneficiary of this act, as it is working with the Bureau of Reclamation to raise Anderson Ranch Dam on the South Fork of the Boise River.
• Small Surface/Groundwater Storage: Grants totaling $100 million would be provided for small surface/groundwater storage projects. The grants would provide up to 25% of the cost of the project, providing a potential opportunity for new recharge projects in Idaho.
• WaterSMART: The legislation provides $400 million for Reclamation’s WaterSMART Grant program. This program has provided significant benefits to Idaho — allowing water users, communities and others to address water needs throughout the state.
• Forest Management: The legislation provides $3 billion to the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior to improve forest management. Wildfires have a significant impact on water supplies — creating water supply and water quality issues. Properly managed forests have a reduced risk of wildfire.
I thank Sens. Risch and Crapo for their vote in support of the bipartisan infrastructure package. Is the legislation perfect? No. Does the legislation have elements that should not be included? I think so. Yet, we should not “throw the baby out with the bathwater” merely because we dislike a part of the legislation.
Overall, the package provides much-needed relief and once-in-a-generation opportunities for Idaho’s water user community. I look forward to engaging with Congressmen Simpson and Fulcher as this moves to the House.