Supreme Court ruling keeps Idaho's water flowing downstream

By Legal News Line | Mar 6, 2007

Justice Linda Copple Trout

BOISE -- The towns and farmlands of eastern Idaho are safe from being dried-out, for the time being, thanks to a unanimous ruling yesterday by the Idaho Supreme Court. More recent water-rights holders had feared that if the Court ruled otherwise and upheld an earlier district court decision, eastern Idaho's upstream water-rights holders would have cut off water from those downstream. Those affected would have included farmers, ranchers and municipalities like Pocatello. Such potential conflicts have turned water rights into Idaho's most controversial legal issue at present. Instead, the Supreme Court ruled, in American Falls Reservoir District et. al. vs. Idaho Department of Water Resources (no. 33249/33311/33399), that the district court erred in ruling Idaho's present system of water-rights management unconstitutional. Water rights in Idaho owned by so-called "senior users" have typically had access to surface water - usually canals - since the early 20th century. "Junior users" bought their rights later and typically pump groundwater from an underground aquifer. Senior users brought a lawsuit against junior users in 2005, claiming the downstream "juniors" were pumping the aquifer dry and emptying their canals. But the Supreme Court upheld the current system of balancing the needs of both groups via the director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources. "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," wrote Justice Linda Copple Trout in the court's opinion. Idaho Governor "Butch" Otter intends to hold a summit meeting between stakeholders to thrash out the whole water rights issue, a spokesman said.

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