BOISE • Idaho should begin investing in its water infrastructure now, before other states try to take advantage of the Gem State’s most valuable resource, water experts warned lawmakers Monday.
“Do not kid yourself. Every state around us is trying to figure out how to take our water,” said Roger Chase, chairman of the Idaho Water Resource Board, during a joint meeting of the House and Senate Resource committees.
Water storage and recharge projects cited in Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s budget proposal are a necessary step, he said. The governor has proposed spending $15 million in fiscal year 2015 to enhance Idaho’s water management.
Most of the projects focus on storage, Chase said. The goal is to keep as much water in Idaho as possible before it gets flushed downstream into another state.
If Idaho creates a long-term plan for its water, it could provide a legal buffer against other states that try to siphon it, Chase said. In years past, larger states, including California, have tried to submit water plans that would seize Idaho water.
“We’re talking about states that have hundreds of millions to spend,” Chase said.
One of the most expensive projects proposed by the state’s Water Department would appropriate $4 million to recharge the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer (ESPA).
For almost six years, Idaho water experts have pushed to replenish the Magic Valley’s largest underground water source. The fear is that more water is being pulled from the aquifer than is being put back in. This potentially could cripple agriculture and industry in southern Idaho, which relies on the Lake Erie-sized aquifer.
“A lot of water we have is flushed downstream because we have nowhere to store it,” Chase said.
Water storage comes in two forms: a reservoir or injection of water directly back into the ground.
One of ESPA’s most successful recharge sites is at the Milner-Gooding Canal southeast of Hazelton. There, water users release water into the canal and let it seep back into the aquifer. It has the potential to replenish almost 200,000 acre-feet of water.
Also on the department’s project proposal is a $2 million effort to analyze the environmental impact of the Galloway project. The proposed dam would be along the Weiser River, upstream of the Snake River, and the extra storage would relieve the federally mandated flows that the ESPA is requiring to help salmon reach the ocean, Chase said.
Water is expected to be one of the key issues in 2014, as Idaho water users enter another year of potentially record-low water levels, said Gary Spackman, director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources.
The Upper Snake River region now has the most water in southern Idaho, which could come in handy later, Spackman said. But dry spells in January could change that.
“If we don’t have an above average year, I may be in a position where I have to curtail thousands of acre-feet of groundwater,” Spackman said. “I don’t want to have to do that, but really, it’s that type of year.”
Idaho’s water law dictates that users with older water rights must get their water first.