BOISE • A bill that would direct $5 million to protect and sustain Idaho’s depleted aquifers survived one of its last hurdles Wednesday when it passed a state Senate committee.
The Local Government and Taxation Committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate floor. The House already has passed the bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.
Under the measure, taxes collected on cigarette sales would fund Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) projects to inject more water into the state’s aquifers.
The $5 million is separate from the $15 million that lawmakers already gave to the state’s water department earlier this year. That money was given for pre-determined projects, Moyle said. The money collected from cigarette taxes will be designated by the state’s water resource board.
If the bill is approved, most of the $5 million will go to repair the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, said Brian Patton of the IDWR.
Each year, water officials struggle to scrape up $1 million to manage the Lake Erie-sized aquifer, but they still lose about 200,000 acre-feet of water annually.
“We haven’t achieved stabilization yet,” Patton told the committee.
The cigarette tax previously was used to repay bonds for the Idaho Capitol renovation. Now that the bonds are nearly paid off, Moyle said, the state has its first opportunity to collect ongoing funds for water management.
“Water is vital to the economy for the state of Idaho,” Moyle said. “This has been something we have wanted for years.”
Norm Semanko, lobbyist and executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association, said this is thee “single most important bill” he’s seen in decades. Semanko described the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer as a “patient with cancer.”
“We have to charge the aquifer,” he said. “It is not in a stable condition.”
Lawmakers lauded the bill, while admitting the structure wasn’t perfect.
“I won’t let the desire of perfection dissuade me from voting on something I think has merit,” said state Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, adding that he wished the bill also added money to education.