"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Water projects

idaho RANDY

Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s state of the state speech last week was mostly a recitation of the familiar – education? Check; wolves? Check – but his reference to $15 million he’d like to spend on water projects seemed a little out of the blue.

“Water sustainability initiative projects”? Doesn’t sound very Otter-like.

And 2014 would seem to be a year when water matters settle down: This is likely to be the year a “final decree” is issued in the Snake River Basin Adjudication, which at last nails who has rights to what in Idaho water.

Throw in a few factors from here and there, though, and it does begin to fit.

There is, of course, the growing likelihood that this will be a parched water year.

Another was the reference to water not long after he spoke about economic growth in the Magic Valley. Many businesses setting up in that region either rely on a strong water supply, or rely on other businesses that do.

Idaho and its history are richly woven with water projects, the bulk of them more than 50 years old. The collapse of the last major project, the Teton Dam, seemed to slam the lid on big dams in Idaho.

Bear in mind that, although his proposal for $15 million was singled out in the speech and got a fair amount of media attention, the amount of money is, in context, small. To build a single large dam would cost hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, one of the reasons so few have been built in recent decades. What Otter is proposing are much smaller-scale.

Those include (his budget book says) “acquiring water rights to provide a reliable water supply to Mountain Home Air Force Base ($4 million); conducting studies of the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer to support the establishment of [city] water rights for long-term needs ($500,000); initiating environmental compliance and land exchange analysis for the Galloway Project ($2 million); completing Arrowrock enlargement and flood control feasibility study ($1.5 million); beginning Island Park Reservoir Enlargement Project ($2.5 million); developing computer infrastructure necessary for the operation of the Water Supply Bank ($500,000); and developing additional managed recharge capacity ($4 million).”

Galloway is iffy. It’s been a subject of interest since the U.S. Senate authorized a study in 1954, and there have been studies (like a 2011 state-authorized study on gaps of information) and even specific action (an early 70s withdrawal of federal lands for a dam and reservoir site). But the difficulty and the costs (recently estimated at more than $500 million) keep emerging as too high, and benefits too low.

Most of the others are more straightforward, and could fall in the category of a small amount of spending that could generate large returns. The Water Supply Bank, for example, probably is underused and might extend Idaho’s water supply with more cooperation. The Rathdrum Aquifer could use more detailed attention; Washington state, which shares the aquifer, certainly is paying ample attention to the limitations and opportunities there.

The largest chunk of the water money, a still-modest $4 million, would go toward Snake River Plain recharge – maybe one of the smartest long-term investments the state could make. House Speaker Scott Bedke remarked that, “Being from southern Idaho, I’m encouraged by putting the money back into the water infrastructure, so that we can prepare to recharge.” Plenty of area water users likely would agree.

This could be spending small in amount, but large in effect.

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