Despite pressure from leaders of surrounding counties, Kootenai County commissioners rejected a proposal Tuesday that could have slowed or derailed the adjudication of water rights in North Idaho.
“It’s important to get the water adjudication going. It’s going to benefit all the counties,” Kootenai County Commissioner Todd Tondee said.
He joined Commissioner Rich Piazza in voting to reject a joint anti-adjudication resolution that already had been endorsed by commissioners in Shoshone, Bonner, Boundary and Benewah counties, but rejected by commissioners in Latah County.
A disappointed Shoshone County Commissioner Vince Rinaldi said backers of the joint resolution will start over now, and circulate a new version without a spot for Kootenai County to sign on. They plan to send the resolution to Gov. Butch Otter.
“We’re still all in favor, without a doubt,” Rinaldi said. “It’s back on the agenda for Monday.”
Key legislators in Boise have warned that sorting out water rights has to be done.
Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said he just returned from a Western states water meeting in Utah at which he concluded that Idaho was adjudicating its water rights “in the nick of time.” With a multi-year drought, global warming and growth pressures, states that haven’t adjudicated water rights are at risk and could lose their water to claims from neighboring states, Raybould said.
He told a joint legislative committee, “I think it’s imperative that we proceed.”
The Idaho Legislature approved the adjudication of North Idaho’s water rights in its 2006 session, with 12 North Idaho lawmakers sponsoring the bill and overwhelming support in both houses. Otter signed the measure into law, and the court process was supposed to start last month.
But sentiment about the adjudication has been mixed in North Idaho, with strong opposition in more rural areas where some residents don’t want the government asking about their water use, and support in more rapidly developing areas where water conflicts are increasing.
Bob Haynes, manager of the northern regional office for the state Department of Water Resources, cites an ongoing North Idaho case in which a woman’s spring, which she used for domestic water for her home, dried up when her new neighbor drilled a well and started pumping water for his new landscaping.
“People are coming into the office and saying, ‘OK, how can I protect myself against having injury to my ability to use water because of development that’s occurring around me?’ ” Haynes said.
Under Idaho water law, it’s the oldest water right that prevails when there’s a shortage. But right now, two-thirds of North Idaho’s water rights aren’t recorded at all, so the state has no idea who’s using what or whose rights take precedence.
Bonner County Commissioner Joe Young said, “I think most of the people up here are not very sympathetic to having anybody tell ‘em what to do with their own private well.”
Residents also are wary of costs for adjudication and disgruntled over changing maps showing which areas will be affected first, Young said.
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, a co-sponsor of the adjudication bill, said she’s backed off because of an outcry from her constituents in mostly rural Bonner and Boundary counties.
“People feel it’s a real intrusion on their private property,” Keough said. She said the issue has become so emotional that some residents have told her they believe it’s a plot to steal their water and send it to Boise.
Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden, an outspoken proponent of adjudication, said, “It’s not true. Nobody’s stealing their water. All we’re going to do is get a correct accountability of who has what and where and how much they are using, period.”
The move toward adjudication started a few years back when applications came in for huge water rights for two proposed water-guzzling gas turbine power plants on the Rathdrum Prairie. The plants would’ve tapped into the same water supply that provides drinking water for Spokane, and objections arose on both sides of the state line.
Both applications were rejected, and they ushered in a new awareness of the need for both states to pay attention to how the area’s water is used. In fact, Washington is moving toward adjudicating the water rights on its side of the state line, partly in response to Idaho’s move to do so on its side of the border.
“In matters of negotiation, knowledge is power,” said Dave Tuthill, director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources. “While adjudication might not prevent a dispute with a sister state, in my experience in negotiating issues, knowledge about one’s own position is helpful.”
Idaho Deputy Attorney General Clive Strong said if states clash over water rights, there are two ways the disputes can be resolved: through negotiated compacts or in an action in the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Typically, the Supreme Court would look at how water rights have been established in each state, and that becomes a baseline from which to operate,” Strong said.
Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, who co-chairs the Legislature’s joint interim committee on natural resources with Raybould, said he thinks adjudication will benefit the region but added, “You can’t do things to people – you have to do it with them.”
He proposed that the panel’s co-chairs and water resources officials meet with all the affected North Idaho legislators, provide more information, and come back with a recommendation to the Legislature – while noting that the interim committee supports proceeding with adjudication. The committee, which includes lawmakers from both parties and both houses, agreed unanimously.
Said Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley: “Our action here today will trigger a series of events in the north, I believe … We’re nudging them.”
Tuthill said, “At this point, not everybody’s in favor. That’s not unusual for an adjudication. … The governor is very committed to the concept that the local people need to be heard on this issue. … He directed me to slow up and make sure that the local people are heard.”
Kootenai County Commission Chairman Rick Currie was the only dissenter in the commission’s 2-1 vote Tuesday, saying he supports the idea of adjudication but first needs some answers to questions about potential legal costs and economic impacts.
“We’re moving very fast, and some questions have to be answered before we move ahead,” Currie said, adding later, “We want to do it right.”