Jon Marvel: Idaho should start charging for its most precious resource

Marvel believes that given the economic crisis, the state water users should pitch in and help-

Jon Marvel: Idaho should start charging for its most precious resource. Reader’s View. Idaho Statesman.

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My thoughts are that if current plans play out, in Idaho those doing all the sacrificing will be the students, the sick, old, young, poor, and out-of-work. Ralph Maughan






  1. kt Avatar

    Yeah – water should cost more including for the big ag interests that guzzle the most water. These are the same fellows who also rake in tax dollar subsidies for irrigating crops that they get the subsidies for! Isn’t Idaho the state with the first or second highest per capita water consumption in the Nation?

  2. outsider Avatar

    I’m pretty sure that most ag water users are already taxed on their water. This happens when they pay higher property taxes for Irrigated ground vs dry ground. This is a common practic in most states. But by all means lets drive up the cost of production of our food, so then we can force farms, ranches, and dairies to go broke. They don’t provide much to the local economy anyhow, and I bet we could get the food from someother country cheaper. Then when those countries form a cartel they can raise the price to whatever they want to. Hey this kinda sounds like what happend with OIL, I wounder how the avg person would feel about paying 10 bucks for a loaf of bread. Ya I know people would just plant their own gardens, this in turn would lead to more water being used form poor irrigation practices, more chemicals being used, avg person has no idea on proper use look at abuse on lawns. But yes this sure sounds like a very good idea, after all its “for the children”. Wake up people the united states produces the safest and best quailty food in the world, are there some small problems yes, but I would rather eat our own food than anyone elses in the world.

  3. Tom Page Avatar
    Tom Page

    Outsider – while I agree with most of your comments, I don’t believe that ag users pay taxes on water via higher property taxes than others. In the western states I’m familiar with, ag users pay MUCH lower taxes than anyone else – commercial, SF or multi-unit residential, even undeveloped open land. This is one reason why hobby ranchers who have no interest in cows keep a token group of them around.

    In general, tiered water pricing has been show to reduce use fairly quickly. Here in bassackwards Idaho, most places don’t even have metering, let alone any sort of conservation or payment program that targets the worst wasters. These kinds of things need to be enacted before we start talking about water taxes. While they’re at it, the legislature could do something to make transfers easier, create a meaningful instream flow program and put some teeth into water quality/quantity laws. Let’s start with some things that aren’t designed to put an additional burden on people, particularly Mr. Marvel’s nemeses.

  4. Brian Ertz Avatar


    irrigated property pays more taxes because the land is worth more. There is no fee that the citizens of Idaho collect for the use/waste of their resource. If the state of Idaho were to pay for your landscaping, and then you payed higher taxes on your property as a result of the increased valuation of that land – would you claim that you had paid for the landscaping ?

    As for the Big Ag apologism – charging a fee for a resource that the citizens of Idaho own would not spike the costs of our food – it would increase the production costs for producers that didn’t find a way to conserve water – and producers that did find a way to conserve water would be more competitive in the market than food that does waste water. Sounds like a good mechanism for water conservation – sounds like a good way to internalize the actual costs of food production and promote free market mechanisms at dealing with water issues in the west. No such mechanism exists today.

    How much of that water goes to produce food – not for us, but for cattle forage ? That’s an exponentially larger quantity of water wasted to produce a fraction of the calories that other agricultural land-uses would provide. We don’t have a right to cheap prawns or lobster – why should we believe ourselves to have a right (let alone believe it’s an appropriate food security issue) to wastefully produce livestock & milk in an environment so inherently at odds with its production that water is drying up – and the water wars just beginning ?

    Let’s do something to build a system that engenders real food security and that promotes real water security into the future. Incorporating the real value of water into food choices such that should consumers choose products that are wasteful and inefficient, they will be confronted with the actual costs those inefficient, wasteful, and ecologically unsustainable choices. Nobody has the right to a market choice that’s a lie.

    Idaho’s water give-away to big Ag is a travesty of monumental proportions — here’s a resource that all of us in the state own but because a marginal few (of the rural/Big Ag persuasion) dominate state politics – all of us are sold out of collecting a fair/any value of that resource so those few can literally give themselves, for free, that commonly held resource – (which Marvel points out – we contribute $$ to distribute via general tax revenue to the tune of significant $$, all while education and social programs hit the chop block) – and those few enjoy the lion’s share of profit on it. What a scam !

  5. Brian Ertz Avatar

    In general, tiered water pricing has been show to reduce use fairly quickly. Here in bassackwards Idaho, most places don’t even have metering, let alone any sort of conservation or payment program that targets the worst wasters. These kinds of things need to be enacted before we start talking about water taxes. While they’re at it, the legislature could do something to make transfers easier, create a meaningful instream flow program and put some teeth into water quality/quantity laws. Let’s start with some things that aren’t designed to put an additional burden on people, particularly Mr. Marvel’s nemeses.

    Tom, it seems to me like nearly all of the things that you mention would target Marvel’s nemeses. Target worst water wasters ? Teeth on CWA ?

  6. kt Avatar

    Outsider and Tom Page: You might enjoy going to this site

    and typing in the name of your favorite water-wasting Blowhard ag-producer in the Idaho Legislature. Or your favorite Idaho public lands sheepman.

  7. outsider Avatar

    Tom the reason that people in SF pay more in property taxes is their land is worth more. Its a scarce resource in SF where as in idaho there is an abundance, simple supply and demand. Thats what drives the price. But in your example your comparing apples to orenges. But when you compare dry ground that is next to irriagted ground which pays more in taxes? The land is identical except for one factor, one has a water right the other does not. So when taxes are paid the one with a water right pays more. So if you want to tax water usuage you will have to drop the value that the water right adds to the property. There is also another problem with this tax idea, water is not easly stored for long periods of time. It can be stored for short periods very easily, ie pounds, resivors, aquifers. But when that storage compacity is reached the water has to go someplace, ie down rivers to the sea, springs that flow more in the spring time, and evaporation. This then leads to the cycle starting over again when it rains, and snows. So I would take the stance use it or lose it, this is why hydro power is so cheap and very effective.

    Brian, why is irrigated land worth more? its the water right thats attached to it. As to the “waste” of water used in beef production, I would view it as transformation of a renewable resouce to very tasty product. But I don’t think that we are going to agree here. But I would ask you this question, if the us imposes a water tax, what happens when people who produce our food decied not to continue? Would you have the gov step in a run these farms, ranches and dairies? It has already shown to be very effecient in all the other endevers that if has its hand in.

  8. outsider Avatar

    Tom, I just reread your post, sorry I missunderstood the SF refernce. But part of the reason that “ag” land has lower taxes is the state trying to keep this land from having house built on it. And yes there are people who abuse this but in general I think its a good policy.

  9. Tom Page Avatar
    Tom Page

    Outsider – Dry ground next to irrigated ground is taxed less only when it has a tax classification tying it to agricultural production. Dry ground without this classification is taxed at much higher rates than irrigated ground.

    You write that this is in part due to the state trying to keep these lands from having houses. While this is a nice side benefit, the real reason these classifications, which function as subsidies, were introduced decades ago was to encourage agricultural settlement.

    kt – interesting link – thanks. I can’t say I have any favorite public lands sheep outfits to look up, and I don’t know many legislators other than my own here in Blaine County, but it was still useful.

    Brian – I should probably add the word “financial” in front of burden to my previous post. Most of what I suggest (transfer mechanism, ISF program, state funding to purchase water rights for such purposes) is intended to create the framework for recognizing legitimate alternative uses of water. Without this security, why would anyone want to sell/give water rights for conservation purposes? Pushing the water districts to install realtime weirs/gages may encourage conservation – at the very least it will point the finger publicly at the worst cheaters. None of these suggestions would cost water rights holders money…maybe a little more ditch management though. I think trying to tax these guys on their paper rights is not the most effective use of time, particularly in ultra-red antitax ID.

    The most important thing needed in the Big Wood and Upper Salmon drainages is the reconnection of the tribs. Without some sort of government mechanism to acquire and keep water in the streams, it will be tough to do. I don’t think a tax fight is the best way to go about making this happen.

    With water quality I was thinking more of the mining industry and the CAFOs, not the public lands stockgrowers that WWP targets. I wouldn’t shed one tear to see all those outfits disappear.

  10. Tom Page Avatar
    Tom Page

    Brian – PS…thanks for using your real name. I wish more would.

  11. kt Avatar

    Tom Page. The EWG link has all kinds of info on ag and ranchers (primarily sheep) who get all kinds of Ag subsdes, and you can do all kinds of searches – from names of subsidy recipients to payments for commodities – like wool and hides.

    Not only do public lands welfare sheep ranchers receive near-free grazing they also get paid by the government for “production” of things there just does not seem much of a market for. Several of the 20 or so sheep barons in Idaho (including some of the premier deniers of disease transmission between domestic sheep and bighorns) are some of the top recipients of those federal wool, mutton, etc. subsidies.

    So we are paying the already-welfare sheepmen more subsidies to “produce” a commodity with little demand. Some of them get ag crop subsidies too depending on base properties. And the marginal ag crops (where the welfare domestic sheep herds may graze in the winter) are grown with this cheapest water imaginable, as Jon Marvel’s editorial describes. and I haven’t even mentioned subsidized coyote, badger, wolf, Mormon cricket and other killing that the federal government also provides as additional welfare – and this all is “applied” by APHIS.

    I agree – reconnection of the tribs – but to do that there has to be an integrated watershed-level approach, and the whole watershed needs to be taken better care of. That requires removal of the number 1 disturbance promoting desertification i.e. drying up of all areas – ranging from the uplands to the headwater springs, to the tribs to the mainstems.

    The #1 disturbance that reduces and incrementally kills perennial water flows (besides the diversions lower down) in the Upper Salmon, is of course, welfare public lands cattle and sheep grazing – where ranchers pay $1.35 per month to occupy the public’s land and destroy water quantity and quality. They get to abuse and destroy that water without paying a dime for it, really. Since the grazing fee is supposed to pay for “forage”.

  12. Layton Avatar

    And what happens when the “tax it” mentality figures out that a LOT of private homes in the “backward” state of Idaho use private wells? Isn’t that “public” water too?? At least I know I had to apply for a permit/water right.

    Watch out what you wish for, you might get it!!

  13. Salle Avatar

    Here, this page is full but extremely informative.

    It’s worth it to be informed:

  14. Tom Page Avatar
    Tom Page

    Layton – you bring up a very good point. One of the encouraging trends in water management around the west is the recognition of groundwater and surface water interaction. Until recently, well permits have not been considered within the prior appropriation doctrine. However, in the last few years, the state of Montana has designated certain closed basins as fully appropriated for both groundwater well permits and surface water diversions. This has huge implications for rural residential development and additional agricultural production wells. Idaho is moving in this direction too, on the Snake River Plain.

    As you suggest, this change moves private wells closer to the public water sphere, where they should be. Nowadays, with scientists ability to track and measure groundwater flow, I don’t think anyone (except maybe rural developers) would argue that surface water and groundwater should be treated separately. With good groundwater private well monitoring, and metering programs on surface diversions, a coordinated water management system is more likely to yield conservation benefit.

  15. Peter Kiermeir Avatar
    Peter Kiermeir

    Just smiling about outsiders comment above, mentioning the (quote) “safest and best quailty food in the world”
    I´d like to share with you a little story I recently came upon (please don´t take it too serious, will you)
    I remember how deeply some of you admired the French recently, even throwing away French wine into a gully, not speaking about the proposed French cheese boycott. Now, imagine you are on holiday in France and you are hungry. You walk onto a French farmers market and (literally) sniff around. Turn into the direction where the worst smell comes from. Good! You have located the cheese booth. Once you arrived in front of the booth, take over visually. The most rotten and greyish green looking cheese will be the absolutely best. Buy some! Add some crispy baguette, maybe a few spicy olives (optional) and (mandatory) a bottle of wine from the adjacent huts. Such equipped, head for a quiet corner to have a decent meal. Same now in the US: Head to a farmer´ s market and look around for what could be cheese. There is no smell because thick layers of plastic wrapping hide pale whitish/yellow tasteless, fatless, emotionless sheets, called “cheese”. Thus you have arrived at the cheese booth now; you better pass on and also bypass the fluffy stuff called “bred”. Thunderclouds are brewing now, because you have still nothing to digest. Ha, there is some wine for sale! Suddenly the dark clouds disappear! Not everything is bad – American wines are fine (many of them at least)! Buy a bottle and head for a quiet corner, to have a decent sip!
    Happy new year everybody!

  16. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Thank you for your good wishes, Peter.

    We hope the best for you in Germany, and a bottle of American wine. But none of those individually wrapped pieces of boring “cheese.”

    Given how the cheese tastes, I think it should be easy to convince Americans to eat soy cheese or algae cheese once it is invented.

  17. Salle Avatar

    Gosh, if Americans only knew what they were missing, but all they seem to be interested in is whatever that stuff is that you can get at the drive-thru.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan