State of the State Address

Governor C.L. ‘Butch’ Otter gives his State of the State Address Jan. 11 at the Idaho Capitol in Boise.

BOISE • Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter called Monday for massive state spending increases for aquifer recharge tied to a landmark deal reached between water groups last year.

Otter is asking for a one-time $6.5 million boost to the Secondary Aquifer Planning, Management and Implementation Fund, bringing it to $16.5 million total for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. And, the governor is calling for an additional ongoing boost in spending on water sustainability projects statewide, from $2 million a year to $5 million.

“After additional discussions with the Idaho Department of Water Resources 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,” the governor wrote in a letter to members of the Legislature’s budget-setting Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

JFAC Co-Chairwoman Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, called Otter’s announcement “very good news for the Magic Valley,” and said funding aquifer recharge was one of her priorities for this year’s session, along with continuing to increase education funding, getting money for a crisis center in the Magic Valley and addressing the state’s wildfire funding shortfall.

“Frankly, it’s probably the wisest thing we could do this year,” Bell said.

Otter’s call for more aquifer recharge money comes in a year when Magic Valley lawmakers are looking for state support to help implement a historic agreement between the Surface Water Coalition and groundwater users.

The deal calls for groundwater users to give up 13 percent of their allotment to help stabilize the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, which is at its lowest level in more than a century. As well as the new funding announced Monday, Otter’s budget proposal already included $546,100 to hire four more people at the Department of Water Resources and start to install flow meters to implement and enforce the agreement.

It also comes at a moment when some aquifer recharge funding is up in the air — Otter’s plan to extend primary coverage to the poor would use the $5 million yearly in cigarette tax revenue that goes toward recharge now.

It remains to be seen if Otter’s Primary Care Access Program will pass, or if the funding source will be the same as Otter has recommended. At an Idaho Chamber Alliance event in Boise on Monday, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, floated the idea of funding it initially with money from the Millennium Fund — the state endowment fund that holds the money Idaho got from the settlement with the big tobacco companies in the 1990s — and only switching later to cigarette tax once the program is established.

Bell said lawmakers would have to wait and see whether PCAP passes and how this will affect aquifer recharge money — if it does, they’ll have to come up with some of the money elsewhere in the budget. She was receptive to the idea of using Millennium Fund money for PCAP.

“I think there’s an opportunity there to do something really good,” she said.

In his State of the State address and again in Monday’s news release announcing the extra funding, Otter praised Bedke, Senate Resources and Environment Committee Chairman Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, and Idaho Water Resource Board Chairman Roger Chase for bringing the water user groups together to broker the deal.

“All water users understand that this is about sustainability and the health of the aquifer,” Bedke said in a statement. “I appreciate Gov. Otter revising his budget recommendation to reflect the urgent need to address this critical issue.”

“We appreciate the governor’s ongoing efforts to assist the water users in sustaining and restoring our water supplies,” said Brian Olmstead, manager of the Twin Falls Canal Co., which is a member of the Surface Water Coalition. “Additionally, Speaker Bedke and Sen. Bair should be applauded for their leadership.”

Mathew Weaver, deputy director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources, said the money would be spent on aquifer sustainability projects statewide.

“We have aquifers that have been in historic decline from Palouse down to Malad,” he said.

There have been recharge efforts in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer for the past six years, and Weaver said that aquifer is the farthest along in terms of conjunctive management and the amount of data and science on it. There are projects there, he said, that are closer to being able to break ground than the ones in other parts of the state where more data has to be collected and projects identified.

“Initially, it will be easiest for us to spend money in the Eastern Snake Plain, because of how far along (we are) compared to others,” he said. “As time progresses … we’ll be looking to implement projects in other basins as well.”

Weaver said the state should be able to meet the goal of increasing recharge of the ESPA by 250,000 acre-feet a year, not in the next few years but perhaps in fewer than 10, assuming the state funding doesn’t dry up and the rain and snow cooperate.

“We do think we’ll have a good shot of reaching that average annual goal within the next decade,” he said.

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