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BOISE • Citing Idaho’s critically low snowpack, legislative budget writers on Friday unanimously approved spending $15 million in water projects out of this year’s general fund instead of waiting to appropriate money out of next year’s budget, as proposed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter.

Otter’s water proposal called for one-time spending on projects that include $4 million to buy water rights from Simplot Corp. to supply water to the Mountain Home Air Force Base, another $4 million for recharge in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, as well as millions more for studies researching potential dam projects near Galloway, Arrowrock Reservoir and Island Park Reservoir.

In Otter’s proposal, surplus money from the end of the year would be transferred into a reserve savings account. This move would reduce that amount.

“It was an effort to expedite the needs and the concerns around the state with regard to water,” said state Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “Because of the way our economy has been treated in the recovery, we have significant one-time money. We do not have very much ongoing money.”

Idaho’s water supply is below average. Without a significant snowpack in the next few months, thousands of water right users could face shutoffs. Earlier this week, Gary Spackman, water resources director, ordered the curtailment of hundreds of Magic Valley water users starting in the spring unless junior water right holders can find a compromise with a senior right holder.

Cameron said the supplemental hearing was not scheduled because of the director’s order.

“Let’s allow the department to start work rather than wait for August 1,” he said.

Some lawmakers expressed concern about spending the one-time money just one day after the committee was hit with a $14.5 million request to fill a hole in funding the state’s broadband network contract for high schools.

Cameron said committee members still were considering recommendations on how the shortfall would be addressed.

Committee co-chairwoman and state Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said the $15 million would serve as the much-needed backfill lawmakers took from the Idaho Department of Water Resources during the economic downturn. In 2009, lawmakers approved $20 million in long-term water projects but quickly took back $12 million as the recession grew worse.

“I thought at that time that was not the way to run a government,” Bell said. “And we did quite a few of those things. And now we’ll do what backfill that’s prudent.”

The $15 million appropriation bill must receive approval from both houses and the governor’s signature before the water resources department may receive the funds.

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