Eye On Boise

Water wars spread north

Lots is happening with the proposed adjudication of all the water rights in North Idaho. Just yesterday, the Kootenai County commission voted against signing on to an anti-adjudication resolution already endorsed by commissioners in Bonner, Boundary, Shoshone and Benewah counties (but rejected by Latah County commissioners). A day earlier, state Water Resources Director Dave Tuthill sent a letter to legislative leaders seeking guidance on how to proceed, noting, “I have heard from some legislators who are in support of moving forward with commencement, from some who oppose moving forward and from some who are undecided.” And yesterday, the Legislature’s Natural Resources interim committee voted unanimously to have its co-chairs, Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, and Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, and water resources officials meet with North Idaho legislators, discuss the issue, and return with a recommendation – while recognizing that the committee intends to move forward with the adjudication. (Read the full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.)

The idea of having everyone formalize their water rights by filing them in a special court has appeal to some in the north, and raises fears for others. In fast-developing areas, water conflicts are growing and people with wells want to protect their water from being siphoned away by new development around them. Plus, Idaho is girding for possible battle with neighboring Washington over control of the area’s sole source of drinking water, the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, and the water that flows from Idaho into Washington in the Spokane River – and officials say an adjudication, which Washington also is starting, will help Idaho in that fight.

But in North Idaho’s more remote areas, the process of formalizing water rights is viewed with suspicion. Bonner County Commission Joe Young told me yesterday, “I think most of the people up here are not very sympathetic to having anybody tell ‘em what to do with their own private well.” Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, a former supporter of adjudication, now says she’ll seek to have Bonner and Boundary counties withdrawn from the process because of opposition from her constituents. “People feel it’s a real intrusion on their private property,” Keough said. She said the issue has become so emotional that some residents have told her they believe it’s a plot to steal their water and pipe it down to Boise.

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, an outspoken proponent of adjudication, said, “It’s not true. Nobody’s stealing their water. All we’re going to do is get a correct accountability of who has what and where and how much they are using, period.”

The politics of water in the West always have been volatile, and we’re now seeing that extend into North Idaho, which traditionally was exempt from arid southern Idaho’s water wars simply because enough water fell from the sky. With more people, more development, increasingly evident climate change, and 21st century water requirements like leaving water in rivers to support fish, it’s not enough any more, even in the lush north.




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