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Spokane water rights adjudications to start in 2012

County prepares for flood of claims

Spokane County commissioners saw the future this week and it looked like “Waterworld.”

Court officials told commissioners the county needs to gear up for a massive adjudication of water rights that is to begin in 2012.

The litigation, to settle all the claims for water in the Spokane River Basin, is expected to take 12 to 15 years.

Once a judge sorts competing claims and tosses out those that have been abandoned, the state Department of Ecology will have a formula for rationing water when there’s not enough to go around.

A delegation of Superior Court judges, Court Administrator Ron Miles and County Clerk Tom Fallquist told commissioners the county must prepare for tens of thousands of claims and millions of documents.

The county officials estimated there may be 60,000 claims, but a Department of Ecology official puts the number closer to 30,000.

“These numbers are malleable and it makes these estimates difficult, but it’s undoubtedly a big process,” said Ben Bonkowski, the DOE’s water rights adjudication manager.

Ecology officials will go to the Legislature next year for the necessary money, but county officials will need to handle arrangements.

Court officials said a new judge and three support workers will be needed, and the clerk’s office will require a new five-person branch for a two-year cost of $1.8 million.

Tentative plans call for pleadings to be filed electronically and for old maps and documents to be scanned with sophisticated technology the county doesn’t have.

Even so, Fallquist said, state officials have warned him not to underestimate the need for space to store “boxes and boxes of stuff.”

The predictions are based on three decades of water-rights litigation in the Yakima River Basin. That action, initiated by a landowner in 1977, has been resolved except for an appeal in a secondary basin of the Yakima drainage.

Action in the Spokane drainage will be initiated by Ecology, which already is organizing claims and planning the most efficient way to deal with them, Bonkowski said.

He said in an interview that the department decided to tackle the Spokane River Basin because much of it is in Idaho, which has already started to adjudicate its portion.

Washington officials don’t want to be at a disadvantage if they can’t agree with their Idaho counterparts on how to share the water. Such disputes go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court for a final decision.

“The big question mark is the budget,” Bonkowski said.

“It’s going to have to make sense and compete with other priorities.”

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