... and water’s for fightin.’ So goes the old saying.
When people think of water issues in Idaho, it usually conjures up scenes of ditches and headgates, “reclaimed” desert lands, fish vs. dams, or groundwater pumpers vs. surface water irrigators. This is the southern Idaho frame of reference which has dominated the water resource debate since Idaho was a territory.
On Wednesday, it was made very clear to the Senate Resources and Environment Committee that northern Idahoans are every bit as passionate about their water. Northern Idaho, of course, is not a desert. Most water users draw their water from wells, and there is very little public sense of any shortage.
But the same Idaho laws that govern (primarily agricultural) southern Idaho water users also govern the north end of our state. That means that the “first-in-time” established right has a priority over other uses established at a later date. This “prior appropriation” concept means little when there is enough water to satisfy all claims, and when uses have not been “appropriated” or assigned a priority date. But what would happen when there are more claims than water? How would an agency or a judge settle disputes? How would water users defend their rights?
These questions have taken on greater significance in recent years due to:
• Disputes between Idaho and state of Washington over the Palouse and Rathdrum Aquifers.
• Concerns over rapid residential growth and domestic wells, some of which are undocumented and subject to no regulation. No one knows how many of these wells exist.
• Potential for claims being made Indian tribes and the federal government.
Because of all this, in 2006 the legislature established the North Idaho Adjudication project, a legal “audit” of sorts to firmly establish water rights and their priority dates. Judging by the testimony of five folks from the panhandle, the process so far has been met with crossed arms -- a classic case of “we’re from the government, and we’re here to help you.”
At least two of them, visibly seething, said they were lied to. One who identified himself as a farm bureau member said he didn’t want to set the stage for “the Indians or the Federal Government to get our water.”
A county commissioner worried about economic growth and, as a land use planner, of being put in a position of having to tell someone they can’t develop because there’s not enough water. He wondered what the county would do if it couldn’t grow anymore.
Another commissioner attempted to play on partisan fears of the Republican members of the committee. He expressed concern that if a Democrat is elected president, the administration will step in and play favorites with the blue state of Washington to harm Idaho, the reddest state. (I resisted the temptation to point out the corollary: If his logic is correct, then Idahoans should elect more Democrats who could then cut deals with Washington to save our water.)
But perhaps the most pointed indication of the grass roots feeling toward adjudication comes from a constituent’s phone message read to the committee by Sen. Shawn Keough. “They will be facing a gun if they come to take our water rights,” it said.
The bills before the committee, brought by northern Idaho legislators, call for changes from minor adjustments to outright repeal of the adjudication process. Since hearings have just begun, I couldn’t venture a guess as to how things will go. One lesson is clear: even if it’s obvious to some that adjudication would actually help secure the people’s water rights, the people won’t be moved until they’ve had time to come to the conclusion themselves.
Maybe there really is no shortage of water in northern Idaho at this time, and no need to firm up water rights. But when that need does arise it’s quite possible that many of those involved will ask “Why didn’t you do something sooner?” Who is the “you” in that sentence? Government? The People? The more growth that occurs and the more wells that are drilled, the more expensive and complicated the process will become. Some people could lose their rights. And if it appears that delays caused even more harm, which “you” will be to blame?
Sen. David Langhorst