Budget puts crimp on water quality monitoring

BOISE – It’s not just layoffs, furloughs and holding positions vacant – budget cuts have forced the state Department of Environmental Quality to halt two key water quality monitoring programs for two years.

“It is just not possible to absorb these cuts without some level of reduction in services,” DEQ Director Toni Hardesty told state lawmakers.

Hardesty said the department last year cut off a program that hires on dozens of college students each summer to take water samples from streams and lakes around the state as part of the state’s compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. Now, she’s planning a second summer without the monitoring.

“Although regrettable, we believed it would have a manageable impact” to suspend the program for two years, Hardesty said. “However … we will need to figure out an alternative solution if revenue doesn’t increase.” She said a “three-year gap in this critical water quality data” would be too much. “We really do not believe we could do it for a third year.”

That program, which has run every summer since 1994, helps DEQ determine for which bodies of water it needs to develop “total maximum daily load” standards for contaminants. By forgoing the sampling, the state is saving $300,000 a year.

It’s also suspended a joint program with the U.S. Geological Survey for water quality monitoring in large rivers; that move, also going into its second year, is saving Idaho about $120,000 a year.

“It just stops until we get the budget to restore it,” Hardesty said.

Some water quality monitoring will continue in connection with individual cases, Hardesty said, but those two programs provided the “statewide view of how we’re doing.”

Hardesty noted that the DEQ budget, taken as a whole, appears to have had some increases over the past 10 years, but those are simply the result of shifting funds, including a legislative shift of department funding from the dedicated water pollution control account to general funds in 2001. Another boost reflects the federal funds that have flowed through DEQ for the Coeur d’Alene Basin cleanup, and federal stimulus dollars that have passed through DEQ to provide grants and loans to communities for drinking water improvements and diesel retrofits to improve air quality.

“The general fund appropriation the governor is recommending and that I’m requesting today will actually be the smallest general fund appropriation the agency has had in a decade,” Hardesty said.

No boost from mine settlement

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, asked Hardesty whether the recent ASARCO court settlement will “in any way relieve the state of Idaho’s taxpayers.” Her response: “Unfortunately no.”

Under the mining firm ASARCO’s bankruptcy settlement, Hardesty explained, Idaho will receive two sums: $1.9 million for the Triumph Mine, and $11.7 million to Idaho and the EPA for the institutional controls program in the Coeur d’Alene Basin Superfund cleanup. Both those funds are restricted to being used on those projects and are “very targeted for ongoing costs that ASARCO would have had to pay for, and in fact now has passed that responsibility on to us … in the bankruptcy settlement,” Hardesty said.

Pet license plate in works

Rep. Marge Chadderdon, R-Coeur d’Alene, said she just has one bill she’s working on this year: A measure to create a special license plate to benefit pets, with the slogan, “Idaho Cares for Pets.” She’s had the bill in the works for three years, she said, but has run into problems with the mechanism for distributing the funds it would raise.

Now, she said, she’s leaning toward grants to counties for day-long spay and neuter events, with a share going to the Idaho State Police.

Chadderdon, a third-term lawmaker, said the special license plate would feature a silhouette of a cat and dog, plus little paw prints down the side and a paw print subbing for the letter “o” in the slogan. “It should be colorful and kind of fun,” she said.

More logging planned

Idaho’s state Department of Lands is proposing to increase its timber harvest on state endowment lands by 35 million board-feet a year, from 212 million board-feet a year to 247 million. Income to the state endowment would rise by 20.2 percent, Director George Bacon estimated, bringing the state endowment $15 million more a year and creating 525 new jobs.

Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, asked Bacon whether the increase in logging really would mean more income, with timber prices down. “Would it truly be an increase in revenues?” Patrick asked, noting “supply and demand,” and adding, “Certainly there’s not a lot of building going on.”

Bacon responded that timber prices are down significantly. However, he said, “This activity should hit the street at the same time our prices are going up.” Plus, he said, the department also is looking at “what … our forests need to be healthy. A lot of the things we need to do, we need to do regardless.”

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