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Senior rights upheld over juniors

Unanimously, the Idaho Supreme Court yestrday upheld a judgment of District Judge (and former SRBA judge) John Melanson, protecting senior decreed water rights in the Thousand Springs region and dealing a blow to groundwater pumpers to the north and east.

The ruling, authored by Chief Justice Daniel Eismann, put the onus directly on the groundwater pumpers. It followed directly on the age-old appropriation principle of “first in time, first in right.”

The case, Clear Springs Foods Inc. and Blue Lakes Trout Farm Inc. v. Idaho Department of Water Resources, is available on line.

The decision, about 40 pages long, was a thorough rundown of the conjunctive management situation and legal changes in recent decades.

Adapted from opinion and related documents:

Clear Springs Foods, Inc., and Blue Lakes Trout Farm, Inc. have decreed water rights in certain springs in the Thousand Springs region of the Snake River Plain. Appellants Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, Inc., North Snake Ground Water District, and Magic Valley Ground Water District are users of the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer ground water across southern Idaho. Groundwater Users pump groundwater from the Aquifer, primarily for irrigation purposes. The decreed ground water rights of Groundwater Users are junior to the surface water rights of Spring Users.

In the spring of 2005, Spring Users sent letters to the Director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources requesting that the Director administer water rights. The director treated these letters as calls for delivery under the Department’s Rules for Conjunctive Management of Ground and Surface Water Resources. The Director found that the Groundwater Users’ diversions were materially injuring Spring Users’ senior surface water rights and issued curtailment orders. An administrative hearing was held in November 2007 and the hearing officer approved the curtailment orders. The Director thereafter entered a final order, based on the hearing officer’s recommendations but substantially affirming the original curtailment orders. On judicial review of the orders, district court affirmed the Director’s findings. The Groundwater Users appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court, arguing that the Spring Users should be denied their requests for water based on the economic impact that would result from curtailment.

Seven issues were proposed for consideration; the court resolved four – agreeing with the district court – and declined to cnosider the other three.

Six were proposed by the groundwater users:

A. Did the district court err in holding that the curtailment orders do not violate the Swan Falls Agreement? [The court held that they did not.]

B. Did the district court err in holding that the curtailment orders do not violate the full economic development provision of Idaho Code § 42-226?7 [The Supreme Court did not find that it had.]

C. Did the district court err in upholding the Director’s determination that the ground water depletions caused material injury to the Spring Users’ water rights? [Again, no error was found.]

D. Did the district court err in upholding the Director’s determination that the Spring Users’ delivery calls were not futile? [The court considered this to be, in part at least, an issue raised on appeal for the first time, so not ripe for its consideration.]

E. Did the district court err in upholding the Director’s findings based upon the ground water model? [Again, a finding that the district court did not err.]

F. Did the district court err in failing to set aside the curtailment orders because the Director did not give the Groundwater Users a hearing before issuing the curtailment orders?

One was raised by the spring users:

G. Did the district court err in failing to order the Director to curtail more ground water pumping? [The court declined to consider it on appeal.]

On appeal, the Idaho Supreme Court held that the statutory and constitutional law of Idaho protects water according to the priority of appropriation. The Court rejected the Groundwater Users’ arguments regarding economic impact.

The Court found that the optimum development of water resources is protected by Idaho law by requiring the means of diversion to be reasonable, and that Groundwater Users did not challenge the reasonableness of Spring Users’ appropriations on appeal. The Court also construed the Swan Falls Agreement and the application of the Department of Water Resources’ ground water model. The Idaho Supreme Court affirmed the District Court’s judgment, upholding the orders of the Department of Water Resources.

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