Wednesday, August 23, 2006

When it's illegal to be green

Western states' histories are filled with tales of violence in disputes over water.

Today, these disputes are more likely to end up in court than in a gun battle. But the life-and-death consequences are as real as they were in the Old West: No water, no plants, no animals, no food. And, no fish.

The Wood River deputy watermaster, who is in charge of managing diversions from the Big Wood River and its tributaries, said last week that users with late water rights—or no water rights at all—are literally stealing water.

That's unconscionable. Some people seem to believe that the need to keep lawns green supersedes the rights of downstream users. It doesn't.

For as long as Idaho has been a state, water doctrine has been built on prior appropriation—that is, senior rights holders' first claim on surface water. The shorthand, "first in time is first in right," is a code well understood by people of the land and the law. It's in the Idaho Constitution.

But the Idaho Department of Water Resources itself has put a crimp in the code.

Fifth District Judge Barry Wood recently found that IDWR had handed out water permits willy-nilly and declared that department director Karl Dreher seemed "bent" on rules that ignore the rights of senior water users.

The ruling should be a warning to water poachers. Also, court review of water rights is on the horizon for Blaine County. As a result, water use could be pinched—and much land left parched.

As Idaho grows, it really has no choice but to strictly enforce water laws. Otherwise, water will be subject to allocation by shotgun—just what the law was designed to avoid.

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