Budget woes worry state water manager - But groundwater study continues

Capital Press Staff Writer
Capital Press

July 31, 2002

TWIN FALLS, Idaho - If state budget woes continue, the Idaho Department of Water Resources may have to start slashing programs.

Another 10 percent budget holdback would probably be enough to trigger some cuts, IDWR Director Karl Dreher said.

“I don’t think I would have any other option at that point but to begin cutting programs out of the department,” Dreher told water users participating in a Magic Valley irrigation tour July 16.

Like other states, Idaho has been grappling with serious budget constraints amid a recession.

In early May, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne ordered a hiring freeze and put a hold on vehicle and other equipment purchases by state agencies. A preliminary revenue report showed that April’s tax collections would come in $60 million under projections.

The state was ultimately forced to transfer $68 million from the Permanent Building Fund to the General Fund to balance revenues and expenditures for the 2002 fiscal year that ended June 30.

If the state general fund balance doesn’t improve during the new fiscal year, IDWR may have to consider cutting programs or imposing a new water “severance” fee - in effect, charging for water severed from its source.

Imposing such a fee would likely come only as a last resort. Dreher offered the idea for discussion only, emphasizing that it’s not an official proposal.

Water users in the West are accustomed to paying for water delivery and infrastructure maintenance, but the resource itself is considered free to water rights holders.

A water severance fee would not be a welcome addition to property tax assessments, Dreher acknowledged.

“This is not a popular notion in the West,” he said. “People don’t like the idea of paying for what they consider to be a public resource.”

Groundwater study

Despite the budget constraints, IDWR plans to continue an extensive groundwater study using water pollution control funds.

Geohydrologists are conducting the study for the department with the goal of more accurately measuring the effects of groundwater usage on downstream flows in the Snake River.

The IDWR is about halfway through the project and expects to finish it in 2003.

Completion of the project will eliminate much of the uncertainty surrounding existing groundwater models, Dreher said.

“Hopefully, it will be a tool that most of us can agree on,” he said. “I don’t think we need 100 percent agreement, but we need general agreement.”

Canal companies in south-central Idaho that divert water from the Snake River have insisted that they’re not getting all the water they’re entitled to because of excessive groundwater pumping.

Groundwater pumpers in Eastern Idaho are working with senior rights holders in south-central Idaho, including the Twin Falls and Northside canal companies, to improve river flows.

Dry prospects

Meanwhile, the prospects for a better water year in 2003 don’t look good, Dreher told water users.

There’s a 40 percent probability that Idaho will get below-average precipitation over the next year, he said.

With that kind of possibility, river flows and dams should be managed conservatively, Dreher said.

“We don’t need to be releasing water for flood control for snow melt that never comes,” he said.

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