Southern Idaho agreement reflects decades of water rights work, dawn of an orderly era

2021’s extended drought has put into sharp relief the decades-long Idaho water adjudication process playing out in southern Idaho, writes guest columnist Stephen Hartgen.

July 19, 2021 4:00 am
The Little Wood River Project

The Little Wood River Project serves lands within an area 2 miles wide and 12 miles long upstream and downstream from Carey, Idaho, in the south-central section of Idaho. The project provides a supplemental irrigation water supply for approximately 9,550 acres of land. (Courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Reclaimation)

We’ve seen short water times before in Idaho, but this year’s extended drought has put into sharp relief the decades-long Idaho water adjudication process playing out in the Bellevue Triangle just South of Ketchum/Sun Valley/Hailey/Bellevue. 

Mostly, it’s been an orderly and legally-reliant curtailment, driven by clear prior court rulings and sound legislation which has established Idaho’s water law over more than 30 years.

It wasn’t always that way. It was Mark Twain who reportedly once said whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. Even if he didn’t say it, the phrase has the ring of truth when it comes to Idaho water disputes. In the early days, water was thought to be abundant enough for every use. But groundwater pumping beginning in the 1960s quickly showed a declining Snake River Plain Aquifer. That led to various water “calls” by senior users.

It took a couple of decades for this to play out, through the 1984 Swan Falls Settlement, clarifying legislation and a series of court rulings establishing the “First in Time, First in Right” principle of prioritization firmly in Idaho water law.

There were many participants who worked out the details on water prioritization, but one important step was the creation of a Snake River Basin Adjudication court within the Idaho judiciary. The court’s role was to review and establish, claim by claim, the priority rights of senior and junior water users. By 2014, it was estimated that nearly 40,000 claims had been heard, as well as some 36 Idaho Supreme Court rulings, according to 2016’s “A Little Dam Problem” by Jim Jones.

Which brings us to the Bellevue water case. Shrinking aquifer resources led the Department of Water Resources to issue a curtailment order in early July for the Bellevue Triangle area, affirming prioritization of downstream senior users over junior groundwater pumping. There was no fight over this; the process went smoothly forward without undue dispute. No court battles.  

The order was lifted a week later following negotiations between user groups led by the Department of Water Resources and the office of Gov. Brad Little, as well as Speaker of the House Scott Bedke who has been a leader in state water negotiations for years. 

That’s called cooperative leadership but without it, not much can be accomplished, as we witness daily in Washington, D.C. On the court side, adjudication judges have applied the evolving law fairly and evenly for more than 30 years, beginning with Dan Hurlbutt and continuing with Roger Burdick, Barry Wood, John Melanson and Eric Wildman, the current water adjudication judge. Interested parties weighed in, including Clear Springs Foods, the Surface Water Coalition and canal companies up and down Idaho’s irrigated farmlands.

It was all these parties, working together, which led to today’s water resolution framework. When disputes arose, the parties looked for solutions, unlike the my-way-or-the-highway vindictiveness of far rightists and other narrowly-focused interests. 

“This settlement is an important first step and sets the stage for a long-term solution in the Wood River area,” Idaho Gov. Brad Little said of the agreement. “I appreciate the efforts by the surface and ground water users to come to a resolution that protects senior water rights while allowing some groundwater pumpers the ability to provide valuable crops. I would also like to thank Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman and his team for their expertise and genuine desire to reach a meaningful resolution. This kind of coming together to face our challenges head on – especially during an extreme drought year – is what Idahoans do.”

That led to a solution this year to provide water for some 140 Triangle growers covering about 23,000 acres. That’s a tiny percent of Idaho’s 3.3 million acres of irrigated farmland, but the fact that it was accomplished without rancor or delay speaks well of what we can do in the state when there’s common sense and the willingness to find solutions rather than to obstruct.

Again, it was Bedke whose leadership and solutions-oriented focus led the parties to agreement. After two decades in the Legislature, 10 years of which he’s been speaker, Bedke is running for lieutenant governor, where his expertise and even temperament will be an enormous asset. 

“We live in the arid West,” Bedke said in the Idaho Press, “and we’re fast-growing, and these will always be problems. And so these agreements, these solutions that last way into the future, will continue to serve us.”

Amen to that. 

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Stephen Hartgen
Stephen Hartgen

Stephen Hartgen, of Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce and Human Resources Committee. Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at [email protected].