Writings and observations

Uproar in the NIA

This is hindsight now – we didn’t see it coming either, so none of this is we-told-you-so – but, in hindsight, you can understand why there’s such uproar and outrage about the North Idaho Adjudication, to the point that bagging it is a consideration on the table.

Our view has been and is that the NIA would be a real asset to the Panhandle, as over time the Snake River Basin Adjudication will be for most of the rest of the state. The Panhandle legislators who got the NIA pushed through – partly in return for their regional support for late-running issues in SRBA – understood that. Now the whole effort could come undone, but if it does, it will be a loss for the area and a distinct failure for the Panhandle’s local political leaders.

But you can see why it’s happened. On this issue of water, the North simply isn’t as sophisticated as the South.

The North Idaho Adjudication was launched by the Idaho Legislature in 2006, aimed at doing what the SRBA has been doing in almost all of the rest of the state. What that is, is a formal determination of water rights: Who has what, whose rights are superior to whose, and under what conditions and circumstances. It’s complex stuff, and the 20 years since the SRBA was launched has been a busy stretch at the SRBA Courthouse (it has its own building, and occupies space beyond it). But it’s been productive. Unlike most western state adjudications, which tend to bog down halfway to forever, the SRBA is actually nearing completion. More than 130,000 water rights have been defined and assigned. When it is done, there’ll be a lot more certainly about where everyone stands. Not only a massive achievement, it will be a landmark in regional social and economic stability. On top of that, when the drought hits, as it may next year, the region will be far better prepared to deal with it (unfortunate as the results still may be). The NIA was designed to give this same set of advantages to the Panhandle.

However. There’s a crucial difference between the Panhandle and most of the rest of the state, which is that most of the rest of the state has a lot less water – the Panhandle is comparatively moist and rainy, albeit not by Pacific coast standards. Part of what that means is that southern Idahoans long have had to deal, very consciously and very deliberately, with the subject of water rights. They’ve had to. They’ve developed canal companies and irrigation districts and a cadre of water lawyers. The idea of what a water right means is almost carved into the DNA of some of the more rural residents.

Not so in the north. While most water users in the south long had been operating off of specific water right claims and filings (however flawed, in some cases), many Panhandlers never bothered to trouble themselves with such things – water’s plentiful, right? So the estimate is – we see it again most currently in the Spokesman-Review – that only about a third of Panhandle water users actually have water rights. From their perspective, something they’ve long taken for granted is about to come under a bureaucratic microscope, complete with files of paperwork and the prospect of losing what has long been assumed theirs.

So when Dave Tuthill, the director of the Department of Water Resources, conducted a couple of information meetings in the region in June and July: “Both of these meetings contained significant opposition to the NIA, which did not concern me because I recall attending meetings during the commencement of the SRBA where water users opposed the adjudication.”

And there was southern Idaho opposition to the SRBA, from a number of people and for a long time, as Tuthill recalls; but it was generally minority opposition, because most of the water user community understood what was going on and what was at stake. Our suspicion is that, in the Panhandle, most don’t.

(There was also a foulup, for which Tuthill took responsibility, concerning a water basin boundary, that stirred some anger; but that looks more like a subsidiary issue, or even an excuse, than anything else.

For now, Tuthill is asking legislative leaders for advice, and advising them that for now he’s holding off on a formal commencement of the NIA (which was planned for this year). The region’s political leaders are split, both county commissions and legislators.

This is a point where leaders could step in with some serious education coupled with soothing. (State leaders could usefully play a rule here too, but the local leaders have a special connection to the constituency.) Their initial impulses, that the NIA could be a real asset to the region, were on track. Comes now the question of whether they throw away something they bargained hard for only a couple of years ago.

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One Comment

  1. msolomon said:

    My prediction is the NIA will proceed but will shift to the Palouse basin while information/education proceeds in the Panhandle. Then there’s the not insignificant factor that the Palouse basin does not encompass any tribal water rights.

    October 26, 2007

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