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The quality of Idaho water

by John Miller
| November 21, 2010 8:00 PM

BOISE - State regulators, environmentalists and cities are pushing for Gov. Butch Otter and the Legislature to restore $350,000 in funding to resume monitoring pollution in Idaho's lakes and rivers, saying eliminating the cash for a third straight year could add to regulatory hurdles for business and dent the economy.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality hasn't conducted water-quality monitoring since 2008, as the state wrestled with budget woes. Another expected shortfall could be as high as $340 million, so restoring the money - even if it only amounts to 30 cents per Idaho resident - won't be easy.

DEQ administrator Toni Hardesty, an Otter appointee, told the Republican chief executive in budget documents that failing to assess Idaho's waterways, some of which are so polluted they don't fully support fish or aquatic life, could result in lawsuits similar to a 1990 case against the agency and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for violating the federal Clean Water Act.

Hardesty agency also said it could hamper industry and agriculture in getting federal pollution permits for projects.

"Dischargers would have to collect additional water quality data that would delay by years" getting permits to allow pollution discharges, according to Hardesty's agency. "Failure to collect surface water quality data will also delay ... review and analysis for new and increasing discharges to surface water."

Hardesty wants $348,200 to pay for six three-person teams.

The 18 temporary hires, working for $11 an hour, would travel the state, sometimes camping out, as they gather data on waters stretching from Canada to the border with Nevada and Utah.

On Friday, Lt. Gov. Brad Little said the dire consequences that could accompany not funding water-quality monitoring, if the reports are accurate, may help it rise on the administration's priority list.

Still, with so many important programs under pressure - public education, prisons and Medicaid are all competing for scarce tax revenue - nothing is assured of making it into the governor's budget recommendation due out Jan. 10, when the 2011 Legislature starts.

"There are a lot of agencies saying, 'If we don't do X, then Y is going to happen,' " Little said. "It always happens, but in this climate, it's going to happen on steroids."

Every two years, DEQ is required by the Clean Water Act to study Idaho's water bodies, to determine if they meet quality standards or if additional pollution controls are needed. If no monitoring is done come 2011, Idaho won't have current data to complete the report.

EPA regulators in Idaho have been closely monitoring what Otter and the Idaho Legislature decide for the program, which they once saw as a model.

But Idaho's move to strike the program - for two years running - raised eyebrows.

Other states have cut back, too. For instance, Massachusetts has seven fewer monitoring staff compared to three years ago, and didn't hire part-time monitors last summer.

"Lots of states have cut back, with the recession and financial crisis, but this was the elimination of a program, and that really stands out nationally," said Jim Werntz, director of the EPA's Idaho operations office.

The absence of up-to-date water quality information could force regulators in Werntz's agency to require Idaho businesses seeking discharge permits to adhere to stricter standards than might otherwise be called for, just to be certain that waters were protected.

"In the absence of data, we will be more conservative," he said.

Cities including Boise, Nampa, Hailey, Moscow, Post Falls, Ponderay, as well as Blaine County, have been enlisted by environmentalists from the Idaho Conservation League to write Otter urging his support.

Among their fears: Without the state doing this, water quality monitoring could become a municipal responsibility; they'll have to pay for increased pollution controls; and a lack of good water-quality data could slow business expansion.

"Without sufficient quantities of pure water, Idaho's economy can't grow, her citizens can't thrive, tourists won't come and our reliance on agricultural production will be diminished," Moscow Mayor Nancy Chaney told Otter Nov. 1.

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