September 2, 2014 in Editorial, Opinion

Editorial: Advocates for aquifer adjudication needed in Washington


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was in Boise last week praising Idaho’s successful adjudication of Snake River water rights, the largest adjudication ever completed.

Adjudication of Idaho’s claims on water in the Spokane River basin is also progressing.

And on the Washington side of the border?

The Department of Natural Resources was laying the groundwork for adjudication, which is the complex, lengthy, often contentious but ultimately invaluable process of sorting out who is entitled to how much water, since when, and from where. It’s also expensive, which brought DNR’s planning to a premature halt.

The department estimates adjudication of Spokane basin rights – an estimated 30,000 – over a decade or more will cost north of $10 million.

Adjudication in the Yakima River basin, which started 37 years ago, has cost about $50 million but at least is near conclusion.

In 2009, the Legislature budgeted $587,000 to begin preparations for an adjudication in Spokane County, but has not appropriated any additional money. DNR stopped work in 2011, before it could petition the Superior Court to get the process underway.

Instead, the department has been preparing an in-stream flow rule for the Spokane River as a stopgap.

Once Idaho completes the adjudication on the upper river and Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, said Dave Christianson, a department manager for its Water Resources program, Washington will have no basis for defending against potentially excessive water withdrawals in Idaho.

Nor would there be a foundation for an interstate water compact that would allow the two states to cooperate on future water management efforts, which would be in the best interests of all water users on both sides of the border. The aquifer is an incredible resource, and a complicated one because of the constant exchanges of its underground water with the surface water of the river.

Carefully managed, it could also be a valuable economic development tool as businesses and individuals elsewhere in the parched West awaken to the availability of a constantly recharged source of water.

Idaho officials deserve a lot of credit for working through adjudication on the Snake, which entailed the cooperation of farmers, business, the tribes and all other holders of a total 158,000 water claims; “a great state triumph,” as Scalia called it.

Those Idahoans now know what they own, to do with as they will. The 30-year-long process cost $93 million; a bargain now, a steal 30 years hence.

Scalia, probably the Supreme Court’s sturdiest conservative, added, “It’s a state doing what states ought to do: define private property rights.”

That’s a message Spokane Valley’s equally conservative legislative delegation should embrace. If they do not become adjudication advocates, no one else will.

Anybody for a drink?

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