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Tiny bill highlights Idaho aquifer plan’s big woes

The Legislature’s struggle to create a small, voluntary fund to protect a southeastern Idaho aquifer underscores the state’s failure to come up with a permanent way to pay for managing the water source that is the region’s lifeblood.

This year’s bill was supposed to be simple: With a permanent funding source in dispute, lawmakers would instead create a repository with the state treasurer for farmers and others to chip in to, if they wanted. Idaho has $2.4 million at the ready in matching money.

Combined, this would be enough to pay for at least a few projects to help restore the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, the underground water source hammered by drought, increased pumping since the 1950s and the abandonment of flood irrigation.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously, but nearly fell apart in the House March 26, 2010.

To be saved, it required amendments to re-emphasize that contributions would be voluntary – and to forbid any money from going to the facilitator of the aquifer management project. Since 2006, Idaho has paid a Colorado-based facilitator more than $800,000 to help set up an aquifer management plan, so far without an agreement on a funding package.

“That’s too danged much money,” said Rep. JoAn Wood, the eastern Idaho Republican who demanded changes to the bill. “We’ve still got people who don’t think they’re being fairly treated.”

Some 60 percent of Idaho’s total irrigated agricultural land sits atop of it, and half of that land is irrigated from the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer. A fifth of Idaho’s goods and services, at an estimated value of $10 billion annually, come from the region.

If it goes dry, so does the region’s economy.

The latest big fight over water in Idaho started in 2005, when farmers who get water from canals near Twin Falls sued “groundwater pumpers,” demanding they give up water the canal operators said was rightfully theirs.

Last year, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed legislation to create the Comprehensive Water Management Program, which foresaw the state chipping in 30 percent of roughly $100 million over a decade to pay for recharge projects coming from the state.

The rest would come from water users.

But so far, farmers, municipalities, industry and utilities including Idaho Power Co. haven’t agreed on a formula to pay for such a program. They’d hoped to have a funding bill ready for this session, but that deal collapsed, in part on concerns it wasn’t constitutional.

“Everybody can agree conceptually on something that makes sense, even though they didn’t get their way,” said Hal Anderson, an Idaho Department of Water Resources administrator. “But when they have to step away and think about writing a check, that’s when people start getting less supportive.”

Anderson concedes Jonathan Bartsch, the facilitator from Boulder, Colo.-based CDR Associates, isn’t cheap.

The Idaho Water Resources Board on March 26 approved another $40,000 installment, which will bring Bartsch’s company’s total pay to $820,000 since 2006, Anderson said.

Still, Wood’s contention the money was ill-spent is off the mark, he said.

The task of bringing together spring water users, groundwater pumpers and irrigators from canals with water rights – and sometimes animosities – dating to before the turn of the 19th century requires having an expert mediator “without a dog in the fight,” Anderson said.??Others agree.

“[Bartsch] has been invaluable. He’s extremely expensive,” said Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot. But “with this group of diverse and highly contested opinions, it takes a facilitator” to bring sides together.

Bair, who helped draft this year’s bill to create the voluntary fund, has a big stake in the battle.

The southern Idaho farmer spends up to $250,000 annually on electricity to run pumps that bring water hundreds of feet up from the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer to irrigate his crops. Every time Bair or his neighbors are threatened with having to shut down their pumps to give water to other, more-senior water right holders, it makes banks that much more leery about lending him money to run his operation.

Still, Upper Snake River Valley farmers with 160,000 acres of land have panned the suggestion they pay an assessment for water they’re diverting.

In a March 3 letter to Otter, Stan Hawkins, a former state senator and elected representative for the Great Feeder Canals, said his group is already contributing to the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer’s recharge because millions of gallons of water it pulls from the Snake River seeps through the gravelly soils back into the ground.

Hawkins says his opposition to an assessment has exposed him to “personal and inappropriate attacks.”

“It doesn’t make sense for us to pay more, when we’re already doing more than anybody else already,” Hawkins told The Associated Press March 26.

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