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Starting to navigate uncharted waters

Many leery as North Idaho adjudication begins

ST. MARIES – Nerves are frazzled as North Idaho begins the complicated and controversial task of identifying which landowners have rights to use what water.

“It’s just like religion,” Clive Strong, the state’s deputy attorney general, told a group of Benewah County property owners Tuesday. “We’re not going to change somebody’s mind.”

The $16 million water adjudication is expected to start in September. That’s when people from just north of Spirit Lake south to St. Maries and from the Washington line to the Montana border can file claims for their existing water use. That will give them a clear title to use water, whether for their home, livestock, crops or power generation. The state will learn how much water in the Coeur d’Alene-Spokane river system is used.

Bob Haynes, regional manager for the Idaho Department of Water Resources, said that like many residents, the groundwater resources management plan committee that recommended the adjudication didn’t like the idea, mostly because it’s complicated and expensive.

“It’s not desirable, but it is needed,” Haynes said.

The goal is to have the information to make decisions on how and when to allocate the water before a shortage occurs. It also will help prevent problems such as low flows in the Spokane River.Washington is moving in a similar direction. Both states are concerned about their shared drinking water source, the underground Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.

Whether tallying water rights in the river system is a good idea depends on who is asked. That was made clear during a series of town hall meetings this week held by the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

Some property owners, especially those in Benewah County along the St. Joe River, are concerned that the neighboring Coeur d’Alene Tribe will grab water rights. Others worry that adjudication will lead to more government oversight.

Many who live near the Spokane River and on the Rathdrum Prairie like the idea of a legal decree on how much water they can use, if only to protect themselves from downstream users in Washington.

Then there are those in the middle, such as the tribe, which isn’t sure the chore is needed in an area where water is plentiful and no shortage is anticipated, even with the surge in population and housing.

“The tribe didn’t ask for this,” said tribal attorney Eric Van Orden. “We find ourselves in the same position as everyone else, having to adjudicate our water rights.”

Concerns about the tribe’s intentions and role were widespread during the town hall meeting in St. Maries. Several people, including state Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, asked why anyone would file a claim that could expose them to challenges for water they have used for years.

“Them are my fears,” Harwood said. “I see us giving water up in our area to (the tribe).”

Strong was quick to clarify that nothing is being given to the tribe.

“Whatever the tribe has is what they have had as part of their initial contract with the U.S,” he said.

That did little to ease concerns.

“That’s probably just fear-mongering,” Van Orden said. “It’s unfounded to start telling people the tribe will take all their water off the reservation.”

Thursday’s meeting in Coeur d’Alene focused on how to file claims and concerns about Washington.

Haynes said the Idaho Legislature alleviated many fears by scaling back the process and making it voluntary for domestic and stock water rights holders to participate in the adjudication. It also cut the fee in half, to $25.

The process is the same as the process used in Idaho’s Snake River Basin for the past two decades; that was the largest water rights adjudication in the nation.

Property owners with small domestic uses can opt not to file claims. That includes homes with wells used for domestic water and irrigating less than a half-acre; small businesses using less than 2,500 gallons of well water a day; and ranchers using water for livestock that doesn’t exceed 13,000 gallons a day – enough for 1,000 range cattle, Haynes said.

But the state urges people to participate. If a water user skips the process now and later must defend a claim on water, the cost could soar into the thousands of dollars.

Haynes, who lives in the Cougar Gulch area, said he will be the first to file a claim.

“I have a very good well, but there is 160 acres immediately south of me that’s proposed to be developed,” he said. “I don’t know if it will impact me. If it does, I want to be in a position to defend myself.”

Contact Erica F. Curless at (208) 765-7137 or by e-mail at ericac@spokesman.com.


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