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Upper Valley recharge site among projects chosen for $195 million in ARPA funds


Intermountain Farm and Ranch

The Idaho Water Resource Board has elected to use $195 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to build three water infrastructure projects, including a proposed new Upper Snake River Valley aquifer recharge site.

The board voted to use ARPA funds for the projects, which were all recommended in Gov. Brad Little's proposed budget, during a Jan. 17 meeting. A board spokesman noted the funds must still be included in the state legislature's final budget.

The board awarded $75 million of the funding to build an Upper Snake River Valley recharge site, $90 million to enlarge Anderson Ranch reservoir and $30 million to build a water treatment plant serving Mountain Home Air Force Base, using a J.R. Simplot Co. Snake River water right.

Wes Hipke, water project section supervisor for the Idaho Department of Water Resources, said the projects all meet draft guidelines for ARPA funding eligibility.

Hipke explained ARPA has prioritized water supply projects, including managed aquifer recharge, which entails intentionally allowing surface water to seep through unlined canals, spill basins and other infrastructure in strategic locations to reverse declining groundwater levels.

"With all of this money — with the ARPA money, with the (federal) infrastructure money that's out there and the state surplus — there's this opportunity in the water world at least of doing some projects and really making differences for decades to come," Hipke said.

Funding previously allocated by the state for the projects will now be freed for other uses. For example, the state is partially funding the Anderson Ranch expansion project with federal Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act dollars, which require a state match.

The state had planned on issuing bonds for its match and repaying them with water rental funds created by the additional reservoir storage. The ARPA funds would be used as the state's match instead.

With so much work to be done on long-term projects that promise to a make a difference in the state for decades to come, Hipke explained IDWR is seeking to add about 15 full-time employees. He said the department never returned to full strength following personnel cuts made in 2008.

On Feb. 11, the board's Aquifer Stabilization Committee will hear a consultant's presentation regarding a study of three possible options for an Upper Valley recharge site.

Two of the proposals would entail building pipelines and pumping water to a spill basin, adding power bills to the cost of recharging water.

One pipeline would pass beneath Interstate 15 and transport water to a spill basin within the lava flows of Hell’s Half Acre, located between Blackfoot and Idaho Falls.

The second pipeline would pump water from the Roberts area to a spill basin near Mud Lake.

The third project would avoid the need for pumping. Water would be gravity fed west of the state’s current Egin Bench recharge site into a spill basin within lava fields.

State officials say the Egin Bench site, which would add between 150 cubic feet per second (cfs) and 350 cfs of Upper Valley recharge capacity, remains a viable option.

The cost of materials to build a pipeline has risen dramatically in recent months, however. Estimates for the Mud Lake project, for example, have skyrocketed from about $70 million in November to more than $300 million currently, Hipke said.

Hipke said the state hopes to add up to 500 cfs of additional Upper Valley recharge capacity with the $75 million in ARPA funding allocated for the purpose. He said the state is also in the midst of internally evaluating several small projects that would add up to 50 cfs of recharge capacity each.

He'll personally present the top 10 to 15 of those smaller projects to the board, and he anticipate about five of them will ultimately be built.

The next step in the process will be to meet with canal company officials to determine who would be willing to allow use of their infrastructure for additional recharge in exchange for payments, called wheeling fees. Hipke said certain upgrades to canal systems would also be necessary.

The state’s recharge program has set a goal of averaging 250,000 acre-feet of annual recharge, seeking to reverse decades of declining groundwater levels.

The Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer has declined by an estimated 13 million acre-feet since the early 1950s due to the combination of drought, new wells and conversions to efficient sprinkler irrigation systems, which leave little excess volume to filter into the groundwater.