State seeks water for base

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The state of Idaho is moving to try and acquire some long-term water rights for Mountain Home Air Force Base.

Led by Gary Spackman, head of the Idaho Department of Water Resources, the effort involves $4 million in Gov. Butch Otter's budget to acquire some priority senior surface water rights (from 1963 and 1965), that would be "banked" until the base needs them -- about three decades from now.

The base doesn't need any water right now, but anticipated growth in the area and a declining aquifer means it will need additional water rights in the future.

The base had commissioned an Army Corps of Engineers study to look at the long-term water needs of the base. That study concluded that a water shortage could develop about 30 years from now. It also indicated that $40-$50 million of infrastructure -- pumps, pipelines and filtration systems -- would be needed to make use of those water rights.

During a meeting last Wednesday with Second District Congressman Mike Simpson, Col. Steven M. Griswold, 366th Mission Support Group commander, pointed out that "this is a long-term issue and we're dealing (in the military) with short-term money right now."

With federal budgets as tight as their are at present, any request to the Pentagon for money just to acquire the water right alone would probably be rejected, he said. "They're going to say we don't need this right now," and will "kick the can" down the road.

But, Griwold pointed out, having adequate long-term water security right now "is the only achilles heel of the base."

Simpsons said that while he felt the federal government could find $4 million to acquire water rights, because Congress can no longer use earmarks to target a specific site, there was no guarantee that the money would actually go to Mountain Home AFB. DoD might decide some other base had a priority need for water rights.

And it is those kinds of concerns that have led the governor and Spackman to begin pressing for the state to at least secure the long-term water rights for the base. For the state, it's a matter of trying to keep a billion dollar industry (the base) in the state.

Spackman, long before he begame IDWR director, had been a field resource officer in a region that included Elmore County. He was intimately familiar with ground and surface water issues in the area.

About the time he took the top job in the department, the base and state were pushing to get the F-35 joint strike fighter located in Idaho (an operational unit at MHAFB and a training unit at Gowen Field in Boise). "The governor told all departments to do what they could to help," Spackman said.

About that time, Jack Peterson, who had a reputation as a troubleshooter, came to work for IDWR and became the liaison to the base. When he asked the wing commander what he needed, the commander said high-speed internet and long-term water security for the base.

About the same time, the Simplot Company was in the process of acquiring some Desert Land Entry Act surface water rights on the Snake River that had become available, the last remaining ag water rights on the river. Simplot also had a right of way that would allow them to run a pipeline up to the Grand View Highway.

Simplot was planning on hanging on to the water rights for future needs, but, Spackman said, "they told us, 'we're patriots. We've always supported the base and will do what we can'." They offered to make about half the water rights they were acquiring available for sale to the base.

At first, it looked like the federal government would be able to acquire them. Then, as a result of the budget crisis, the across-the-board cuts of sequester kicked in, combined with the loss of earmark capability, which made acquiring the rights problematical. "The feds just didn't step up," Spackman said.

But the state felt the need for the base to have those long-term rights, in order to help secure the base's future, was paramount. State officials, local officials, especially Sen. Bert Brackett, and the water board began to explore the possibility of the state acquiring the rights. "I told (the state water board) that they need to step up to this responsibility," Spackman said. "If we go through another BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure process), and they say we don't have enough water rights to justify keeping the base long term, we'd have failed in our responsibility"

So, at the recommendation of the IDWR board and local officials, Gov. Otter placed $4 million in his budget to acquire and "bank" the water rights for eventual use by the base, with some restrictions, so the rights won't be lost. While held in the state's name, they will be dedicated for use by the base.

Tuesday, Spackman had been scheduled to testify before the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee about the measure.

"The people I talk to recognize the value to the base to the state of Idaho, and a lot of them have pretty patriotic leanings, so I think this may have less controversy that some other proposals," Spackman said, indicating he felt there was a reasonable chance the measure would pass.

But if the state acquires the water rights, the infrastructure to use the water will probably have to come from federal appropriations, and in the current budget climate in Washington, D.C., both Simpson and Griswold agreed, finding that money right way isn't likely.

"It's a good think we're not going to need it for another 20 or 30 years," Simpson said, "but we need to start laying the groundwork for it now."

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