Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Water rights resolution put off untill fall

Outcome of adjudication objections still uncertain

Express Staff Writer

The Idaho Department of Water Resources is working to sort out objections filed to water rights determinations in the upper Big Wood River Valley. Department Director David Tuthill said last fall the objections would begin being sorted out this spring, but that time frame has been pushed back to the coming autumn.

An original schedule to begin resolving contested water rights in the upper Big Wood River basin this spring has been postponed to autumn.

"What happened is, last year we received objections in many basins around the Snake River Basin Adjudication. We haven't concentrated on resolving objections in (the upper Big Wood)," said Idaho Department of Water Resources Director David Tuthill.

The department last fall completed a review of water rights—called adjudication—for distributing water in the Wood River Valley and set a Nov. 14 deadline for objections to be filed. 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.

Of the 2,199 water rights adjudicated in the upper Big Wood River Valley, the department received 2,999 "objections," which were consolidated into 614 sub-cases. Water Resources Adjudication Bureau Chief Don Shaff said many of the rights are uncontested while others have received multiple objections.

Tuthill said the objections involve all parameters of water rights.

"Any element can receive an objection: name, point of diversion, point of use, flow, number of acres irrigated," he said. "I would expect to see objections to virtually all elements in one case or another."

Initial hearings to begin resolving contested water rights in the upper Big Wood are now scheduled for autumn.

"I would anticipate that, this summer, work will be done on some of the objections, but as far as measurable progress, at this point we don't have that (in the upper Big Wood)," Tuthill said. "It has taken the court longer to process through the initial objections than was contemplated last fall."

That's despite the fact that the process has received fewer objections that anticipated. Tuthill pointed out last fall that the number of sub-cases amounted to about 27 percent of the adjudicated rights. The department had predicted that number might be closer to 40 percent.

"We expected a higher objection rate in the Big Wood because of the huge number of changes in water rights and the great number of pre-existing decrees and the complexity of water rights in the basin," Tuthill said.

The director explained that there's been a great deal of legal activity in the Big Wood basin through the decades. Also, some water rights have changed locations.

"In this basin we've had, proportionately, more transfers of water rights, and that would be changed in diversion or point of use," he said. "There have been a great number of water right disputes in the Wood River Valley historically, so we expected a high percentage of objections."

Objection forms provided by the department are relatively simple and consist of four pages and a short space in which an objection can be explained.

"You could object to your own, or you could object to anybody's," said Water Resources Southern Region Manager Allen Merritt.

Merritt said he was not surprised by the number of objections filed on rights in the upper Big Wood.

"There're a lot of issues in the Big Wood that are difficult," he said. "Just the basin itself has a lot of complex water-right issues that I'm not surprised people would object to. There are saved-water issues, dry-stream issues. There are a lot of things that are kind of peculiar to the area that I could see people concerned with."

Tuthill said this year's decent snowpack should help speed up the process since it allows the department to expend less effort on water distribution issues.

"The 2006 water year was good as well," he said. "We have recently, therefore, seen what happens in a good water year. I don't know that it changes the way the conflicts are handled, but it does allow our staff to work on resolution to objections."

Tuthill added, however, that the good water years don't diminish the need to get the water-rights tangle straightened out.

"On one hand it's out of mind," he said. "On the other hand the adjudication process brings it front and center. We have a lot of work to do there."

Tuthill emphasized that it's an ongoing concern of the department that senior water rights be protected.

"We recognize that a blade of green grass in the upper valley means a blade of dry grass in the lower valley," he said. "And in a dry year the water supply availability is fully stressed."

Tuthill said notices have been sent to "several dozen" water users in the Wood River Valley based on an analysis of water use conducted in September.

"Those water users are meeting with staff to find explanations for water use of last year. The notices that were sent are preliminary to sending out notices of violation."

However, notices of violation will be sent if things don't change, the director said.

"This is part of tightening up water distribution in a basin. So we plan to continue increasing scrutiny of water uses in the Big Wood basin as part of the water distribution aspect and as part of the outcome of the adjudication process."

The Snake River Adjudication is among the largest adjudications in the country.

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