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Snake River Adjudication Nearly Complete Complete

by Patricia R. McCoy, Staff Writer
Capital Press, February 10, 2006

It may seem impossible, but 20 years after it began, Idaho's massive Snake River Basin Adjudication is nearing completion.

The Idaho Department of Water Resources expects to file its final report with the Adjudication Court in June, only six months past the original goal, said Don Shaff, adjudication bureau chief.

"We filed our last report of the year with the court on Dec. 16. That left us with about 18,000 water rights claims to go. We'll roll out another 2,000 to 3,000 reports in January, and the rest in stages from then until June," Shaff said.

"The court will issue decrees on undisputed matters quickly. Some will take longer because they will be disputed. Everything should be over in another two to three years," he said.

Despite the six-month extension of its original goal, IDWR is proud of its accomplishment, he said. The delay is not straining IDWR's budget, or putting the department in a cost-overrun situation.

"To say the least, adjudicating water rights on the entire Snake River and all its tributaries was a massive undertaking. What water rights are actually out there will be known; no one will be guessing when we finish. The building blocks will be in place to allow the policymakers to set policy, and IDWR to administer and execute that policy," Shaff said.

"Management opportunities such as water sales or trades between willing sellers and willing buyers, exchanges, and changes of use will also be possible," he said.

"We have a win-win situation, because we'll know exactly where the water rights out there are," he said. "Our administrators and hydrologists have learned a great deal that will let them further refine or models for better management."

No Unappropriated Water

The adjudication proved what many long suspected: With few exception in very isolated areas, Idaho has no unappropriated water, he said.

Individual water rights holders are each receiving what is legally termed a partial decree, because their water is only part of the whole. Armed with those decrees, there's a better chance that disputes such as those between senior surface rights holders and junior ground water rights holders in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer can be more readily settled through negotiations, Shaff said.

"Nobody will be shooting wildly into the sky. We'll all know exactly how much water each person has a right to. Over time, we'll learn more about the interrelationship between ground water and surface water," he said.

"We'll also know better whether or not there are sufficient laws in place to allow the state to administer the resource properly."

Water administration is becoming more difficult. Land taken out of production agriculture has different water needs than that where crops are still grown. There's a mix of water right relationships that are challenging to manage, Shaff said.

"The director of the IDWR certainly influences policy, but he has no constitutional authority to dictate how things are to be done. He looks at the law, and decides how to do things based on his understanding of what the statutes authorize him to do. It's an evolving state of affairs. As citizens we'd like it to be simpler, but we have to adjust to the complexity of the situation," he said.

Lawsuits Began AdjudicatIon

The Snake River Basin Adjudication began by legislative authority after a series of water rights disputes pitted farmers against Idaho Power Co. The first lawsuit was filed by a group of ratepayers who contended their power rates were increasing because IPCo. was allowing producers to withdraw more water from the river during the height of the irrigation season than they had a right to, thereby forcing the utility to fire up more expensive coal-powered generating plants in Nevada, and raising electrical rates to compensate. That forced IPCo. to file suit against a long list of junior water rights holders, most of them farmers. Many of those same farmers countersued.

State legislators recognized that neither farmers nor IPCo. could exist without each other, and stepped in to settle the lawsuit by launching the adjudication in 1986. At first it moved very slowly as a number of general legal issues significant to the entire state were argued before the court. Once judicial rulings settled those matters, mostly between 1992 and 1998, the process began moving much faster. The major legal framework was in place that allowed Idaho to move forward, Shaff said.

"It's definitely been beneficial to the state to stay the course and stick to its guns on the adjudication. Over the years, I've visited with neighboring states, who are struggling more extensively in their adjudication activities. Too often state policymakers become impatient, and launch a funding tug-of-war we haven't had in Idaho," he said.

Patricia R. McCoy, Staff Writer
Snake River Adjudication Nearly Complete Complete
Capital Press, February 10, 2006

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