Water use in the Big Wood River Valley is about to change.
The Idaho Department of Water Resources has completed a review of water rights—called adjudication—for distributing water in the Wood River Valley. The Big Wood is one of the final basins in the Snake River Basin Adjudication, which has been ongoing since 1987.
The intent of the process is to resolve a 1982 court finding that water throughout the Snake River Basin is over-appropriated.
While the goal is to establish a new baseline of water rights in the drainage, it has also provided the research necessary to step up enforcement on water over-use and abuse.
"I think you're going to see ground going brown in the upper Wood River Valley that has previously been green, where irrigation has occurred and has previously been allowed," said Rich McIntyre, director of the Wood River Legacy Project, a sort of water bank approved by the Legislature last winter.
In the summer of 2006, District 37 Deputy Water Master David Murphy was the first to blow the whistle. He said people in the Wood River Valley were blatantly stealing water to keep their lawns green and their private fishponds full.
"Welcome to Sun Valley," he said at the time. "This is typical America, the land of greed, where people just take, take, take."
In an interview this week, Idaho Department of Water Resources Director David Tuthill said one of the results of completion of the Snake River Basin Adjudication in the Wood River Valley will be increased scrutiny of water use.
"Now that we've identified the water rights, we're beginning to turn up the dial on enforcement," Tuthill said. "We're making additional review of the water use in the upper Big Wood basin, and you'll begin to see results of that before this coming spring."
McIntyre said abuse of water use in the Wood River Valley appears significant.
"I think that based on David Murphy's comments from last year and based on IDWR from their remote sensing work, abuse is substantial," he said. "I think that what we are looking at is, for the first time in our history, enforcement of water rights based on priority date. And in that sense it is going to constitute a lot of change over what has gone on in the past."
Tuthill explained that officials at the Department of Water Resources have been examining satellite images and comparing them with recorded water rights. They've looked at areas where there appears to be irrigation without the benefit of a water right.
The department will follow up with preliminary notices of violation as soon as this spring.
"It's made possible by the adjudication," Tuthill said. "It provided the research we needed to follow through with enforcement."
Water rights in Idaho and throughout the West are allocated using prior-allocation doctrine, which employs the premise of first-in-time, first-in-right. It also works on the premise of use-it-or-lose-it, which means water rights not used are forfeited.
The Snake River Adjudication is among the largest adjudications in the country and involves an effort to accurately determine pre-existing rights and changes that may have occurred.
It's been ongoing for more than 20 years, but Tuthill said it has gone relatively smoothly.