Gov. Butch Otter’s 2017 state budget proposes that $16 million be appropriated this year from Idaho’s General Fund to pay for Snake River Aquifer recharge infrastructure, yet the governor’s proposal may not be nearly enough since a recent estimate of the cost of the infrastructure needed for recharge might be as much as $30 million. In addition, operating costs of the recharge program may be as much as $3 million per year forever.
As Idaho taxpayers we should ask: Why are Idaho taxpayers being asked to foot the bill to create this huge benefit for water users who could easily afford to pay the cost themselves?
The better way to fund Snake River Aquifer recharge and the significant annual costs of the Idaho Department of Water Resources to oversee the recent legal settlement between Snake River Aquifer groundwater pumpers and surface-water users is not to burden Idaho’s taxpayers through the General Fund, but to charge water users who stand to benefit the most from the recharge.
Water rights holders do not pay the state of Idaho anything for their water use, even though the Idaho Supreme Court has affirmed that the state owns the surface water and groundwater within its boundaries. Water is the only thing owned by the state of Idaho that is given away for free. Idaho charges for all other valuable resources it owns, including timber, oil and gas, commercial property, grass forage, farmland and vacation cabin sites.
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Since over 90 percent of all water use in Idaho is for agriculture, it only makes sense to consider a reasonable charge for water use that fairly places the responsibility of paying for costs such as Snake River recharge on the primary water users.
This is also especially appropriate since agriculture is a huge and successful business activity in Idaho. The University of Idaho’s publication “The Financial Condition of Idaho Agriculture: 2014” confirms over $10.4 billion in gross receipts with net profits of over $4.5 billion in that year.
With such enormous profits for agribusinesses, asking irrigators to pay for Snake River Aquifer recharge infrastructure and operating costs is both fair and reasonable.
A modest annual fee of $2 or $3 per acre-foot could raise between $30 million and $50 million every year from water users and remove any ongoing burden on the General Fund for aquifer recharge and long-term Department of Water Resources administrative costs.
Those potential receipts from a water use fee are less than one-third of one percent of gross annual revenue of Idaho’s agribusiness — not much of a cost when compared with Idaho’s state sales or income tax rates.
Charging for water use is not only a good idea, it is not a new one: Water use fees have already been used by the Idaho Legislature to assist in paying for the $94 million cost of the Snake River water rights adjudication.
The current Idaho state policy of giving away hugely valuable water resources for free is a massive benefit for agribusiness at the expense of all other Idaho citizens.
The Legislature should not place Snake River Aquifer recharge costs on all Idaho’s taxpayers. Instead, the Legislature should place the cost where it belongs — on the users who stand to benefit.
Jon Marvel, of Hailey, is the vice president of the Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund.