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Budget scalpels

Tweaking policy in between legislatures

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If budgets are where the rubber meets the road in state government, the Legislature needs to kick the tires under this administration a little more.

The drive for state agencies to undertake a form of zero-based budgeting under Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter collided head-on with 4 percent budget holdbacks earlier this year, handing agencies a mandate to trim their own fat before the Legislature got to town.

But one man's fat is another man's drinking water.

Among this year's budget cuts at the Idaho State Department of Agriculture are programs that regularly check for groundwater contamination across the state.

Agriculture has already eliminated two positions from its groundwater program and demoted the water section manager.

"Fewer people will mean you do less sampling," said George Robinson, who now supervises the ISDA's shrinking water section.

The cuts to ISDA's well monitoring program started in the current 2009 budget year—the one that the Legislature approved at the end of last year's session. In the first week of this year's session, the legislative budget committee approved Otter's 4-percent holdback in one sweeping vote, with little to no eye to what agencies actually cut.

That means items that agencies identified as part of the holdback Otter ordered—monitoring wells on mega-dairies or checking for pesticide seepage, for instance—are now eliminated from the base for the 2010 budget, the one that lawmakers will review in much greater detail in coming weeks.

But in Otter's proposed budget for the 2010 fiscal year, even more water monitoring is at risk. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality plans to spread out its water sampling more, diluting the data that has been collected over the course of more than a decade.

One supervisor likened the proposed cuts at DEQ to buying a lower pixel digital camera: You still get the picture, but it won't have as much detail.

"I don't think we're cutting any muscle, but we're not adding any bells and whistles to the program," said DEQ groundwater program manager Ed Hagan.

This comes on the heels of a new report on nitrate concentrations that DEQ issued just weeks ago. The report identifies 32 nitrate priority areas across the state—up from 25 in 2002—including much of the Boise Valley all the way to the Oregon border.

The report relies on years of well monitoring data from the departments of Agriculture, Environmental Quality and Water Resources.

Agriculture was one of the first agencies to undergo the zero-based budgeting exercises that Otter ordered last year. In that process, the department lined up all of the things it does with all of the things that state law requires it to do.

"The statutory requirements for the water program here are not extremely clear," said Pam Juker, chief of staff to Ag Director Celia Gould. "We do believe that we have a part in that and that we should have a part in that, but what we're evaluating now is how large, how wide a scope."

In 1996, Ag signed onto an interagency cooperative agreement on groundwater monitoring that outlines each agency's role in protecting water quality. The agreement was a result of the state's groundwater quality plan, issued the same year, which has a special section devoted to agricultural sources of contamination.

All of the agencies with some jurisdiction over groundwater meet on a regular basis—they last met in December—to coordinate their activities. The Agriculture department, which has greater access to dairies and feedlots, is generally tasked with testing wells on farms.

DEQ generally handles other industrial uses.

Otter has said several times that he wants agencies to revisit programs that are "nice." When asked to elaborate, Otter told Unda' the Rotunda that there are times when a governor—he won't say which governor—saddles up to an agency and asks for a new report or new program which may not be required by statute.

If any department heads out there know which governor or which initiative he's talking about, by all means contact us.

But if state agencies with some scientific expertise or medical expertise or legal expertise are to cut back to the simple letter of the law, Idahoans are going to lose a lot of protections.

And if water regulators are shuttled out of our ag agency on strict budget constructionist grounds, we are going to drink shitty water.

While disappointed that there will be less groundwater monitoring, dairy activist Alma Haase of the group Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment said the bigger issue is enforcement, not monitoring.

The data already shows that groundwater quality is deteriorating, Haase said.

"Nothing is coming of that data."

Check the nitrate map at citydesk. boiseweekly.com.