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Bill makes water adjudication voluntary

BOISE – Most North Idaho residents would not have to participate in a controversial water rights adjudication after all under legislation now moving toward final approval. But backers say they’ll probably want to anyway.

“In the southern part of the state, I don’t know of any that weren’t really glad that they got their water rights adjudicated, and it’s over,” said Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, noted that the legislation will lower adjudication fees to as low as $25 for a claim involving a domestic well. If a water user doesn’t participate in the process now and later must defend a claim on water, the cost could soar into the thousands.

“We’ll see many people that will elect to adjudicate,” Eskridge said. “That’s pretty cheap insurance.”

Three bills sponsored by North Idaho legislators are nearing final passage. Together, they’d scale back the adjudication by making it voluntary for domestic and stock water rights holders to participate; cut fees in half; and eliminate the northernmost basin, the Kootenai-Moyie River basin, from the process.

Adjudication is a legal sorting-out of water rights in which a court determines who has rights to how much water and issues permanent decrees. The process is the same one used for southern Idaho’s Snake River Basin over the past two decades – the largest water rights adjudication in the nation.

But some North Idaho residents were taken aback by the prospect of a complicated adjudication, and many protested to their legislators that they saw no need to prove their water rights in court.

“We’ve received over a thousand signatures on petitions to date, and I’ve been assured that more are on the way, saying, ‘Save us from this,’ ” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle. “Letting them decide for themselves whether or not they want to participate will go a long way toward calming things down.”

Making domestic and stock water rights a voluntary part of the process is significant. Those users represent half the water rights involved.

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, said he hoped the changes would “set some people at ease up there.”

The Kootenai Environmental Alliance says it’s important for domestic water rights holders to participate.

“If they don’t participate in the process and a neighbor diminishes their water supply, they will have to establish their water right and prove the injury in district court,” Barry Rosenberg, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “That would involve hiring an attorney and an expert such as a hydrogeologist. The cost could run into the tens of thousands of dollars.”

Rosenberg said a complete and accurate adjudication process is important to resolving potential water conflicts between Idaho and Washington and heading off future federal litigation.

Broadsword said, “I anticipate that once the fees are lowered and the education has taken place, most of those people will determine that they want to participate, and they have a right to participate.”

State Water Resources Director David Tuthill said filing a claim in the adjudication is a good value. “The claimant can ultimately receive a decreed water right … for future generations,” Tuthill said.

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