Court Urged To Overturn Water Rights Decision

The constitutional powers of the Legislature and the judiciary clashed before the state’s highest court on Wednesday in a confrontation over legislation that could determine the course of the nation’s largest water rights adjudication.

Attorneys for the state urged the Supreme Court to overturn the Dec. 7 decision by 5th District Judge Daniel Hurlbutt that voided nearly all of last year’s bills intended to streamline and expedite the sorting out of 163,000 water rights in the Snake River Basin.

But attorneys for two groups of water users agreed with Hurlbutt that the attempt to change the status of the Water Resources Department in the adjudication and to bar state payment of attorneys fees and costs of other claimants was an unconstitutional intrusion into the right of the courts to control their procedures.

Chief Justice Charles McDevitt raised concerns about the state’s justification for the action.

The high court was expected to rule in the next several months. If Hurlbutt’s ruling is upheld, Republican Gov. Phil Batt has indicated he will recall lawmakers into special session to address the adjudication, which was launched with the 1984 agreement between the state and Idaho Power Co. over allocation of water in the Snake River. It was originally expected to take a decade and cost $27 million. More than $20 million has been spent already and without some change the process will take as much as $40 million more before it is completed in another 10 years.

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