U.S. Water News Online
BOISE, Idaho -- Water managers must take into account where
the resource can best be put to use -- not just who owned the rights
to it first, the Idaho Supreme Court said in a ruling.
The high court unanimously struck down a June 2006 district court
decision that had said the state's method of managing water --
balancing the needs of so-called "junior" water rights holders, who
purchased their rights to the resource after 1950, against those of
"senior" rights holders that have held rights since the early 1900s
-- was unconstitutional.
Had the ruling been upheld, many worried holders of older water
rights would issue a call to cut off water from those with newer
water rights, potentially drying up tens of thousands of acres of
valuable farmland and devastating Idaho's agricultural economy.
The recent decision could be an incentive to bring people back to
the bargaining table, said House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale.
"This puts us kind of back where we started from," Denney said.
"There's enough risk for the (senior) water users -- and still enough
risk for the (junior) users -- that we may come to some resolution."
Newer, "junior" rights holders tend to be farmers and municipal
districts who pump groundwater, while "senior" holders are usually
canal and irrigation companies who obtain it from surface sources.
The groups have been fighting over how water is distributed from the
Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, a Lake Erie-sized aquifer in eastern
Idaho that feeds the Snake River at the natural Thousand Springs area
Senior rights holders say drought and overuse have drained the
aquifer, and in 2005, a group of them including the Twin Falls Canal
Co., sued, saying they should have full access to a resource to which
they own the rights.
The Supreme Court, however, said Idaho law requires that the
priorities of those who have first prioority on water be balanced
against whether they are putting the water to good use.
The court affirmed policies of the director of the Department of
Water Resources, who weighs a host of factors, including whether
water is being put to good use and how much a senior right holder has
stored in reserves.
"Somewhere between the absolute right to use a decreed water right
and an obligation not to waste it and to protect the public's
interest in this valuable commodity, lies an area for the exercise of
discretion by the director," the justices wrote.
They struck down 5th District Judge Barry Wood's decision that the
state's system of doling out water was too arbitrary, and gave the
director too much discretion.
Attorneys for groundwater users said the Supreme Court decision
confirmed that in Idaho, the right to water isn't absolute.
"(Putting water to) beneficial use is a paramount requirement,"
said Michael C. Creamer, an attorney for the Idaho Ground Water
Appropriators. "The Supreme Court has confirmed that these are
bedrock principles that need to be adhered to."
Attorneys for senior rights holders could not be reached for
Vince Alberdi, manager for the Twin Falls Canal Co., also didn't
return phone calls seeking comment.
State lawmakers had been bracing to move quickly if the court
issued a decision that could have potentially led to shutting off
water to farmers and cities.
Now, they say, they have more time, but the need to sort out water
distribution in the state remains glaring.
Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said he still wants to hold a water summit
to bring stakeholders together to discuss the issue, said spokesman
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