This year Idaho lawmakers are making painful budget cuts they never would have considered in even bad times in the past. State agencies, which have already had to lay off all but essential workers, are looking to slash services. Schools are not just looking at ways to protect classroom quality, they are seeking ways to blunt the effects on students who will only get one chance at an education.
So decisions that were made in better times also are getting scrutiny. In 2008 the Idaho Legislature approved $400,000 for a study of rebuilding the ill-fated Teton Dam, which failed in June of 1976 and killed 11 people.
Since then Trout Unlimited has fought the study even as it has expressed a willingness to work with irrigators on alternatives. The Idaho Water Users have made the study a line in the sand.
Realistically, rebuilding the Teton Dam has little chance of going anywhere. Even if the state supported it, which is not certain given the history, national environmental groups would fight it with all their resources.
But if you change the discussion to whether there are off-river storage options in the Teton drainage, that is a different issue. Trout Unlimited still opposes it but they are at least willing to talk.
So that gets us back to this year’s budget. Trout Unlimited has joined irrigators in the collaborative Comprehensive Aquifer Management Planning process. The talks have developed a long term plan for managing the eastern Snake Plain Aquifer that is aimed at reducing the conflicts between surface and groundwater users by finding ways to conserve water.
But the agreements come with a cost. Taxpayers were expected to pay $3 million annually for recharging water into the aquifer, converting groundwater to surface water projects and other efforts to conserve water.
So Gov. Butch Otter has proposed the state devote $1 million this year in stimulus funds, matched with other state money already collected and private funds to keep CAMP alive.
That’s $1 million that won’t go into Idaho schools or colleges or into essential services the state is going to have cut. But most people on both sides of the issue think its money well spent.
Some suggest water users should pay for it with a user fee.
That gets me back to the $400,000 for the Teton Dam study. The Bureau of Reclamation plans to match it though it still hasn’t come up with enough money. Trout Unlimited, which now has some clout with the Obama administration, is still trying to ensure the study as it is now proposed goes nowhere.
The $400,000 is still sitting in the bank. Idaho would have to break a memorandum of understanding with the Bureau of Reclamation before the money could be used for other programs, something the Idaho Department of Water Resources doesn’t want to do.
But these are tough times.
“We may need every dollar that we can get just to perform the basic services,” Rep. Scott Bedke of Oakley, the assistant majority leader in the House., told the Twin Falls Times-News taslking about another budget issue.
From my standpoint the only real value of the $400,000 is laying the groundwork to move the discussion past rebuilding the Teton Dam, which is an irrigation pipe dream.
But does that value stack up in the face of cuts to education and other state programs?