Mia Maldonado

(Idaho Capital Sun) Water experts and public officials across the state presented challenges, success stories and solutions regarding Idaho’s water supply at the Governor’s Water Summit on Monday at the Idaho Capitol in Boise.

Officials recognized that water levels in Idaho are in decline, and some of the main challenges they discussed at the summit include population growth, outdated water infrastructure and climate change.

Tyler Palmer, the deputy city supervisor for the Public Works and Services department in Moscow, said that since 1935, water levels in the Palouse region have been consistently declining. And while the rate of decline has decreased, “the fact of the matter is it’s still declining” a half a foot each year.

And many regions including North Idaho, the Wood River Valley and the Treasure Valley are experiencing a similar decline.

However, multiple agencies from the local, state and federal level are working to provide funds to improve water infrastructure that will maintain Idaho’s water supply. Since taking office in 2019, Idaho Gov. Brad Little and the Idaho Legislature approved more than $1 billion in funding for water-related infrastructure projects.

Through Little’s Leading Idaho and Idaho First plan, the Idaho Water Resource Board — a group of water experts appointed by the governor to manage water resources and financing — the group has received nearly $450 million to modernize outdated water infrastructure across the state.

Population growth, development impacting Idaho water supply

According to a report conducted by Veolia water, the Treasure Valley alone is expected to more than double its population by 2065.

According to the report, from 740,000 residents in 2020, the Treasure Valley is expected to grow to a population of 1.6 million residents in 2065.

With a growing population, local water experts expressed concern that development has on the water supply.

District 63 watermaster, Mike Meyers, said the Treasure Valley is seeing the beginning of a trend where drains are drying up and water districts are losing water supply in the Boise River equivalent to 234,000 acre feet of water a year.

“As we put concrete houses and sprinklers, we don’t get that return into the aquifer,” he told the Sun. “And so that is what keeps me up at night — that the more we concrete things, the less returns we’ll have. So are we one year away or are we five years ago from those drains going to zero and having shallow aquifers?”

Meyers said constantly monitoring water levels is the most pressing need to improve the state of Idaho’s water supply. He said he is hopeful that new programs with real-time monitoring levels will help maintain Idaho’s water levels.

Meyers said the collaboration between cities, irrigation districts and municipalities stood out to him and gives him hope for Idaho’s water supply.

Like Meyers, Lanie Paquin, a deputy area manager at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, told the Idaho Capital Sun in an interview that the diverse discussions at Monday’s summit are a step to keep Idaho’s water supply safe.

“What I’m struck with today is the value in bringing all different perspectives together,” she said. “That is the only way the community of water users, which covers everyone, can move forward when we have different challenges that we’re facing.”

Paquin said that Idaho faces a diverse set of challenges, but at the Bureau of Reclamation, she said her main concern is aging infrastructure.

“From the Reclamation’s perspective, we’re very much in tune to aging infrastructure, so making sure that we can maintain the infrastructure from early in the 1900s,” she said. “Also, the pressures that come along with population growth present really interesting challenges, but they’re ones we have to figure out.”

Paquin said with urbanization and population growth, water managers are going to have to implement “timely” and “costly” solutions to augment Idaho’s water supply. But she is encouraged to see state in federal investments in Idaho’s water supply, noting that with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Idaho has received nearly $50 million in Idaho water projects.

‘We are true conservationists’: Idaho officials prioritize water supply

Idaho Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke told the Idaho Capital Sun that Monday’s summit was a reminder that Idaho’s water supply is limited.

“We’re not necessarily in crisis mode at this point, but that’s what we want to avoid and it’s the decisions we make now that will help us avoid crises in the future,” he said in an interview. “There’s not one area in the state that is immune to these problems.”

Bedke said the state’s economic future depends on its better practices to augment the water supply.

“We’re not creating more water, but we’re using what we have better,” he said.

Like Bedke, Little thanked experts for their participation and insight at the summit.

The governor said he hopes Idaho will maintain its water sovereignty, referencing states like California and Colorado where the federal government has mandated water supply standards.

“We really need to put a lot of our differences behind, and let’s take advantage of what we learned today,” he said. “Our policies in Idaho demonstrate that we are true conservationists. These people are moving here because of what Idaho looks like, and how we manage water is going to be incredibly important going forward.”