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Watered-down Water Bill Heads to Full Senate

Anti-degradation proposal passes through committee.


"Be careful what you wish for. It might come true."

Those words, spoken by Boise Democratic Sen. Elliott Werk seconds before a vote on an industry-backed water bill, may come back to haunt lawmakers.

On March 7, the Senate Resource and Environment Committee voted 7-2, approving a plan that would dramatically alter how and when Idaho protects its waters. The legislation would need a sign-off from the Environmental Protection Agency, and environmentalists said there's a good chance that might not happen.

"If you support this legislation, you're probably making it easy for the EPA to come in here and start making decisions for you," warned Justin Hayes, program director for Idaho Conservation League. "Quite frankly, Idaho would probably get a more favorable standard from the EPA to protect our water quality."

In January, Idaho's Department of Environmental Quality proposed new anti-degradation legislation, instituting new rules to protect high quality water, but the bill died in committee. Idaho's most powerful business lobby, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, stepped in to unveil its own--pardon the pun--watered-down version of anti-degradation.

Among other things, the IACI-sponsored bill eliminates nearly 300 bodies of water from the designation as "special resource waters," which would have them evaluated in the same fashion as all other waters. Special resource waters include sections of the Clearwater, Salmon and Snake rivers. Furthermore, the compromised anti-degradation measure would slide 46 more water bodies from a Tier 2 status (requiring more protection) down to a Tier 1 status (Idaho's baseline for water quality).

"I think what I'm hearing from you is the solution to pollution is dilution," said Werk, pointing to IACI representative Alan Prouty, who is also vice president of environmental and regulator affairs for the J.R. Simplot Company.

However, Prouty touted plenty of support, saying the legislation was crafted with input from dairymen, cattlemen and irrigators. In fact, one industry--mining--indicated that the legislation was too strict.

"There will be less mining in Idaho because of this," said Jack Lyman, executive vice president of the Idaho Mining Association. "Our members can't afford the 10 years it will probably take to resolve this issue."

But Lyman's colleagues could be waiting more than a decade if the EPA rejects the plan.

"What would happen if the EPA says 'no' and drafts their own rules?" Werk challenged Barry Burnell, water quality administrator at DEQ.

"If industrial dischargers needed to renew a permit, they would face much more stringent rules," said Burnell. "I don't think the EPA would approve a permit that would allow any additional degradation of Idaho waters."

The bill, which has already been approved by the Idaho House, now heads to the full Senate for a final vote.