Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has long lamented that his state’s system of dams captures too little annual runoff for eventual use by electricity-generating utilities, potato- and sugar beet-growing farmers, cities and industry — even as Idaho is beset by regular droughts. As part of Otter’s plan to remedy the situation, he’s proposed $15 million in his fiscal year 2015 budget proposal — for the year starting next July — to go toward water projects, everything from building new and expanded dams to recharging the depleted Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, the Lake Erie-sized underground reservoir that’s the lifeblood of Idaho’s agrarian economy.
Here’s a brief list of his aims:
— GALLOWAY PROJECT: The governor aims to chip in another $2 million for work on this 750,000 impoundment on the Weiser River, located a few miles upstream from the Snake River. Among other things, the money would initiate environmental compliance and land exchange analysis, so the pace of the project development can be maintained. Operations analysis — just how the dam would fit into Idaho’s system, including by potentially providing hydroelectric power, should be complete in 2014, after a separate $2 million in funding was granted in 2011. Environmentalists poo-poo the project, though state water managers say don’t count it out, yet.
— ISLAND PARK DAM: The governor wants to direct $2.5 million to prepare eastern Idaho’s Island Park Reservoir to store more water following completion of a 3-foot dam extension of the dam holding back the Snake River’s Henry’s Fork. Irrigators are hoping the project gives them about 30,000-acre-feet more in storage water and helps make it easier to send more water down the Snake River to help salmon on their way to the Pacific Ocean. Brian Patton, of the state Department of Water Resources, is optimistic about the project’s prospects, saying its relatively cheap price tag makes its completion likely.
— ARROWROCK REJUVENATION: Otter is asking lawmakers for a $1.5 million infusion to continue studying enlargement of the Boise River’s Arrowrock Dam, a nearly century-old structure on the Boise River that for nine years after its completion in 1915 by the U.S. Department of Reclamation was considered the tallest dam in the world. The governor’s hope: Initial studies will lead to an estimated $800 million, largely federally-funded project to add 300,000 acre feet of storage capacity, not only to boost water supplies in the Boise Valley, but also add to flood control. Environmentalists say there’s an easier, far-cheaper way to alleviate flooding: “If you want to avoid flood risks, stop building in flood plains,” said Kevin Lewis, of the Boise-based group Idaho Rivers United.
— WATER RIGHTS PURCHASE: Otter’s proposal foresees using $4 million to purchase water rights that would go toward maintaining a reliable supply for the Mountain Home Air Force Base about 50 miles east of Boise. Patton, of the Water Resources office, says the calculus behind the cash is simple: Not only is the aquifer beneath Elmore County where the base is located being depleted at a rate of 30,000 acre feet annually — it’s dropping one to two feet annually — but the governor sees the value in making sure the military facility and its economic presence in the region are secured. “The Air Force base, in round numbers, is $1 billion of economic activity,” Patton said. “That’s a very significant piece of Idaho’s economy. We want to make sure they have the water supply available to thrive and be able to complete their missions.”
— WATER SUPPLY BANK COMPUTERS: About $500,000 of Otter’s request would develop computer infrastructure for the state’s Water Supply Bank, a water exchange market operated by the Idaho Water Resource Board to help manage the state’s water, especially in years when it’s scarce. Water-right holders can offer unused water rights to the Bank. From there, the water can be rented to people who without adequate rights to meet their needs.
— AQUIFER RECHARGE: The governor would dedicate an additional $4 million to recharge the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, the massive underground lake beneath the largely agriculture region stretching from King Hill in southern Idaho to Ashton near Idaho’s border with Montana and Wyoming. Depleted since the 1950s by overuse and changing irrigation practices that allow less surface water to seep into the aquifer, its users have been fighting some of the state’s most-bitter water wars . Farmers that get their water from canals are pitted against those who pump it from below the ground. The aquifer helps supply a region that’s responsible for about a fifth of Idaho’s $60 billion annual economic output, so its users are frantically seeking ways to keep it filled for future generations.