An informal group of Idaho legislators, lawyers and lobbyists rewrote the Idaho Water Plan, deleting references to climate variability, minimum stream flows and endangered species.
The plan is used to support funding appeals for water projects such as new reservoirs, flood control, fish screens and improved water monitoring devices.
It has been updated over the past five years by the Idaho Water Resource Board and outlines Idaho's water policy. It was completed last year after a series of public hearings around the state. Many of the public's concerns were incorporated into the final draft, said Water Board Chairman Roger Chase of Pocatello.
What is the practical effect? For now, minimal, since the plan is just that - a plan, not a state law or even an administrative rule.
But the changes could send a message that Idaho is not doing as much as it really is to protect flows and habitat for fish, water officials say. And, at a time when Idaho's future water supplies are uncertain because of changing climatic conditions, the plan's alterations could weaken the state's ability to get help from the federal government for new reservoirs, flood control or fish projects.
"They are taking away the Water Resource Department's ability to plan for climate change," said Marie Kellner, who works on water issues for the Idaho Conservation League.
By law, the Idaho Legislature can rewrite the plan if the work gets done within 60 days from the opening of the session. That means the proposed changes must be approved by both the House and the Senate by Thursday, March 7, Chase said.
Then Gov. Butch Otter would have to sign it.
The House Resources and Conservation Committee has scheduled a print hearing on the proposed changes for Friday at 1:30 p.m.
Republican Rep. Judy Boyle questioned the deadline, saying the plan was formally presented to the House Resources and Conservation Committee on Feb 5. She says that date should start the 60-day clock.
"That makes common sense to me," said Boyle, one of the legislators who edited the plan in three meetings.
The changes include removing references to an Aquifer Storage and Recovery Task Force and the values of protecting wetlands, streamside areas, floodplains and stream channels. The changes appear to weaken the case for managed aquifer recharge projects and strengthen the argument for paying farmers to continue the recharging they already do.
Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said too many federal agencies already are managing wetlands and floodplains. He said the state plan could become the basis for future Idaho legislation that adds state regulation as well.
"I don't want the state to manage wetlands," Andrus said. "It could take private property rights."
By removing references to "climate variability" - a compromise term the plan's writers used because many Idahoans don't acknowledge climate change - the editing undercuts efforts to get the federal government to help build reservoirs like the proposed Galloway Reservoir on the Weiser River.
Idaho's water future is as uncertain as ever. Winter snowpack is low, and scientists predict warmer winters, less snow and earlier runoff, which could make planning for more floods, drought and water storage even more important, state water officials say.
Boyle said the intent of the editing was to remove redundancies and add precision where necessary. She defended the work as lawmakers' responsibility to provide legislative oversight to the board's planning process.
"We're trying to get the agency to focus on its mission," Boyle said.
But cutting out references to minimum stream flows, fish screens and water-storage banks - which help farmers and ranchers in the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi basins avoid enforcement action under the federal Endangered Species Act - could become evidence that the state is not serious about protecting fish, Chase worries.
That means the changes actually could increase the power of the federal government in Idaho, he said.
"It really puts the state in a weaker position," Chase said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484