BOISE, Idaho-A proposed state bill would authorize the Idaho Water Resource Board to develop and run a program, operated as part of its water supply bank, awarding credits to private interests that conduct managed recharge of the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer.
The credits could be sold to groundwater irrigators to fulfill mitigation requirements, or potentially to justify issuing new groundwater rights, which have been under a systemwide moratorium.
The proposal - resulting from a series of meetings involving a committee of stakeholders - has been submitted to Gov. Butch Otter's office for submission early next session as a so-called agency bill. It also grants the department the right to establish priorities for using credits.
Brian Patton, Idaho Department of Water Resources bureau chief, said the board would assess a fee on credit sales to fund the program, and require a percentage of recharge water yet to be determined to remain in the aquifer for the public good. Patton explained the plan is vague, directing the board to address "all of the hard questions" through a rule-making process.
Patton said the bill will be a template for future recharge rules governing other Idaho aquifers.
The state holds a 1,200 cubic feet per second recharge right, paying canal companies to allow water to seep into the aquifer through their unlined systems. Patton said private entities who recharge state water may be given any resulting credits if they forgo payments on projects done in their systems.
Nonetheless, five entities have applied for their own recharge rights for greater certainty.
Patton said the board's sentiment is that building up the aquifer should be top priority, followed by using credits for mitigation. He said the board also condones new water supplies for expanding municipal and industrial uses.
"I don't see a lot of appetite on the part of the board for seeing those new credits going for irrigating new ground," Patton said.
Lynn Tominaga, executive director of Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, Inc., said his organization hasn't taken a formal position on the bill but supports credits for mitigation and acknowledges the needs of growing cities must be addressed.
"Our concern about the recharge is the development of new agricultural ground," Tominaga said.
Dave Tuthill, vice president of the private recharge entity Recharge Development Corp., argues Idaho irrigated farm acreage is declining and too much water leaves the state unused. His company originally formed its own recharge credit system, but Tuthill has no problem with the state assuming that responsibility. He supports the new bill - which he prefers to a previous incarnation that would have prohibited private parties from holding recharge water rights. He believes the new bill provides a framework for opening more irrigated farm land.
"Recharge water should have an opportunity to replace some of the land that has been lost from production in this state," Tuthill said.
Water Board Chairman Roger Chase said the state recharged 100,000 acre feet last year and has set a goal of averaging 250,000 acre feet in annual recharge.
"There are a lot of aquifers in this state that are dropping," Chase said. "Anything we can do to slow that or reverse that trend we should set as a goal."