Idaho SC weighs in on water dispute

Jessica M. Karmasek Mar. 25, 2011, 10:35am


BOISE, Idaho (Legal Newsline) - The Idaho Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision last week, upheld a lower court's judgment protecting senior decreed water rights in the state's Thousand Springs region.

Clear Springs Foods, Inc., and Blue Lakes Trout Farm, Inc., referred to as "spring users" in the Court's opinion, have decreed water rights in certain springs in the Thousand Springs region of the Snake River Plain.

Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, Inc., North Snake Ground Water District, and Magic Valley Ground Water District, collectively referred to as "groundwater users," are users of the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer ground water across southern Idaho.

Groundwater users pump groundwater from the aquifer, primarily for irrigation purposes. The decreed ground water rights of the groundwater users are junior to the surface water rights of the spring users, the Court explained.

In Spring 2005, the spring users sent letters to the director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources requesting that the director administer water rights.

The director -- represented by state Attorney General Lawrence G. Wasden -- treated these letters as calls for delivery under the department's Rules for Conjunctive Management of Ground and Surface Water Resources. The director found that the groundwater users' diversions were "materially injuring" the spring users' senior surface water rights and issued curtailment orders.

An administrative hearing was held in November 2007 and the hearing officer approved the curtailment orders. The director then entered a final order based on the hearing officer's recommendations and affirming the original curtailment orders.

On judicial review of the orders, a district court affirmed the director's findings. The groundwater users appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court, arguing that the spring users should be denied their requests for water based on the economic impact that would result from curtailment.

On appeal, the state's high court held that the statutory and constitutional law of Idaho protects water according to the priority of appropriation.

Chief Justice Daniel T. Eismann, who authored the Court's March 17 opinion, rejected the groundwater users' arguments regarding economic impact.

The Court said the optimum development of water resources is protected by Idaho law by requiring the means of diversion to be reasonable, and that the groundwater users did not challenge the reasonableness of the spring users' appropriations on appeal.

The Court, in its 40-page decision, upheld the orders of the Department of Water Resources.

"The Director perceived the issue as discretionary, he acted within the outer limits of his discretion and consistently with the legal standards applicable to the available choices, and he reached his decision through an exercise of reason. The district court did not err in upholding the Director's decision in this regard," it wrote.

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