Lawmakers on the Natural Resources Interim Committee heard a series of updates on water issues in the state this morning, including presentations from Deputy Attorney General Clive Strong and two Idaho Department of Water Resources officials. House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said the state has been funding water projects through cigarette tax funds, but that’s just temporary. “I think it’s high time that we … move it off of the cigarette tax into a dedicated funding source in the general fund,” Bedke said, “put this on stable funding. … Because the $5.5 million that we carve out of the cigarette funds to do this type of capital improvement” won’t be enough in the future, he said.
He noted not only the Eastern Snake River Plain aquifer issues, but also issues in the Treasure Valley and the currently ongoing North Idaho water adjudication. “If we’re serious about this, and I think we are, then it’s time for us to address that issue here within the funding structure,” Bedke said. He added, “Freeing up cigarette money might help somebody else’s little initiative, too, if you’ve been paying attention. I’m just sayin’, we’ve got to start planning.”
Strong told the lawmakers that water planning in Idaho has evolved over the years. “We now have a foundation to move forward and to actually get into the proactive management of the resource in a way that we haven’t in the past – in the past we’ve tended to operate on a crisis basis,” he said.
The North Idaho adjudication is proceeding, Strong reported. So far, 90 percent of the claims are de minimus domestic or stockwater claims, which are defined as less than 13,000 gallons per day for household use or 2,500 gallons per day for stockwater or other uses. In the Snake River adjudication, those small claims weren’t fully investigated or adjudicated; they were just recognized. The state has proposed taking the same approach in North Idaho, but the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has objected; the question will be placed before the Coeur d’Alene-Spokane River Basin Adjudication Court to decide. Strong said he thinks the state will prevail, which would have a significant impact on how long the adjudication will take. “We have some precedent,” he said.
Other claims being examined in the North Idaho adjudication include federal reserved water rights for the St. Joe River at its headwaters under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, for the tribe for things like lake level maintenance and instream flows, and for the Forest Service for forest practices and firefighting. Strong said settlement talks are under way, and North Idaho lawmakers have been involved; Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, and Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, are serving on a committee coordinating settlement meetings and have “been very helpful in that process,” Strong said. “We feel like we’re making some progress.”