In a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice Jim Jones, the Idaho Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from Rangen Inc., which contended that a lower-court ruling upholding a water-rights mitigation plan was flawed; the plan called for several irrigation districts to divert 12 cubic feet per second of water from Billingsley Creek, via a new pump station, on Rangen’s land, and deliver it back to Rangen. The company operates a major trout farm in the Hagerman area; its senior water rights have led to multiple court cases over the rights of junior water rights holders in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, who pump groundwater for irrigation and municipal use.
The water in question, from the headwaters of Billingsley Creek, was already being used by Rangen, and had been for 50 years; but was considered legally unappropriated by a Snake River Basin Adjudication ruling in 1997. Rangen subsequently obtained a water right for the water, but the districts’ application for the smaller amount preceded it by one year, making it senior.
A hearing officer’s initial ruling in favor of the mitigation plan was overturned by the director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources, in response to a protest from Rangen; he ruled that the irrigation districts’ application was made “in bad faith” and that the application “was not in the local public interest.” In his ruling, Director Gary Spackman called the plan “the epitome of a mitigation shell game,” saying no new water was being delivered as a result, and the approach could lead to troubling precedents for other water-rights cases.
The districts appealed, and a district court overturned the director’s ruling. It held that the “local public interest” is defined by statute only as “the effects of use on the public water resource.” The court also upheld the districts’ use of their power of eminent domain to obtain a water right for mitigation, even on Rangen’s land. The Idaho Supreme Court ruling, issued Friday, affirmed the lower court ruling. Brody Law Offices represented Rangen, with Fritz Haemmerle arguing the case. Pocatello attorney Randall C. Budge represented the water districts; and the Idaho Attorney General’s office represented IDWR.