BOISE — Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has increased his funding request for Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer stabilization efforts, after leaders within the Legislature and state irrigation managers questioned if his original proposal was sufficient to meet state goals.
Under the revised terms of Otter’s Fiscal 2017 budget request, the state would make a $16.5 million one-time payment — up from his prior request of $10 million — toward aquifer stabilization efforts.
He also proposed $5 million in annual payments toward reversing a trend of declining groundwater levels, up from his prior request of $2 million.
His proposal would provide revenue from the state’s general fund to replace the $5 million in cigarette tax revenue the state has allocated for aquifer stabilization efforts, such as managed recharge, during each of the past two years.
The state has committed to averaging 250,000 acre-feet of annual recharge — intentionally injecting surface water into the aquifer — to help make a recent water call settlement between junior groundwater users and surface users represented by the Surface Water Coalition a success.
The groundwater users have agreed to reduce their well consumption, or offset it through their own recharge projects, by about 240,000 acre-feet per year, hoping to stop groundwater declines and gradually rebuild depleted aquifer levels.
Officials with the Idaho Department of Water Resources estimated in October that it would take $30 million to cover construction of infrastructure needed for Idaho to increase its recharge capacity and meet its goal, plus another $3 million in ongoing funds to finance maintenance and “wheeling fees” paid to canal companies that run the state’s water through their unlined canals or into special spill basins to bolster the aquifer.
In his Jan. 25 letter to the Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Otter wrote, “After additional discussions with the IDWR on the funding necessary to meet the state’s commitment under the settlement agreement for the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, I am revising my budget recommendation to fully fund its accelerated implementation.”
Brian Olmstead, manager of Twin Falls Canal Co., said his board discussed the previous “light” budget request during a recent meeting, and the new proposal should provide water users the means of sustaining and restoring the aquifer.
In a press release, Idaho Water Resource Board Chairman Roger Chase described the decision to step up the funding request as “monumental.”
“Future generations of Idahoans will look at this effort to sustain and protect Idaho’s future water needs as one of the state’s most important water decisions,” Chase said.
Senate Resources and Environment Committee Chairman Steve Bair and House Speaker Scott Bedke also issued statements in a press release lauding the decision.
“This action will accelerate crucial water recharge efforts and enhance our aquifers so they become truly sustainable resources for Idaho citizens, municipalities, businesses and agriculture,” Bair said.
IDWR officials anticipate recharging 75,000 acre-feet this winter with a recharge right that remains in priority during winter from Minidoka Dam to Milner Dam. They estimate infrastructure projects currently underway should boost Idaho’s recharge capacity to 120,000 acre-feet by next winter.