Aug 23 2014

An adjudicated peace

Published by at 7:07 am under Idaho,Idaho column

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
Idaho

Thirty years ago Idaho was locked in a political civil war. The stakes could not have been higher: Water, and who got to control Idaho’s.

I remember the politics of that season, when what mattered was less budget and taxes, or even whether you were a Republican or Democrat. The big deal was about whether you were for or against subordination.

This now obscure debate, which had to do with the water rights held by Idaho Power Company, is still pertinent. It is so much so that it can be said to be drawing to a conclusion, for the time being at least, only this month, with the August 25 celebration of the conclusion of the Snake River Basin Adjudication. The SRBA is the massive yet surgically precise instrument by which that battle over a few specific water rights got hammered into shape, through the settling of everybody’s.

For many decades, the water flowing down the Snake River has been heavily used. Much of it has been used by irrigators, and Idaho Power Company long has had hydropower rights which entail not diversion of water from the river but rather an assurance that a certain amount will flow down the river past its various dams, especially the oldest, Swan Falls, south of Boise. This could conflict with the water used by irrigators and others, but most people in Idaho thought that Idaho Power had long ago given up its first-in-time priority so that irrigators had first call on it. A 1982 Idaho Supreme Court decision on the rights at Swan Falls said that in fact Idaho Power had the senior rights. Soon after, Idaho Power sued about 7,500 farm water users, demanding they quit using water Idaho Power claimed to power its dams. The war was on.

As everyone quickly realized, there was no sensible winner-take-all answer to this. If Idaho Power prevailed absolutely (as it mostly did in the short run), massive reaches of Idaho agriculture, and large chunks of Idaho’s economy, could be ruined. But Idaho Power couldn’t simply give in, either; it had responsibilities to stockholders, and a need to supply the state with cheap power. A wrecked Idaho Power was not in the state’s interest either.

Still, Idahoans swiftly picked sides. A majority seemed to favor “subordination” – that is, a legal determination that Idaho Power’s rights would be secondary to those of many of the irrigators.
But Idaho Power had its defenders, too, and long-standing deep political clout in the state. The state’s politicians in both parties were deeply split. Attorney General Jim Jones, one of the leading subordinationists, recruited Republican primary election challengers to several of the key pro-Idaho Power legislators, and knocked out a couple of them.

The subordination war went on for about a year and a half. It was resolved after months of closed-door meetings in which Jones, Idaho Power CEO Jim Bruce, and Governor John Evans and their surrogate negotiators worked out a complex settlement. Its essential pieces, they decided, has to include a complete accounting of who held rights to what water in the whole Snake River basin. An adjudication, in other words.

It has taken a long time, and along the way some of the premises of the original settlement have been challenged anew. But now, 30 years after that big political battle, water rights in the Snake River Basin essentially are settled.

Such efforts in many states have foundered, never reaching completion, stuck for a whole complex of reasons.

Against all the odds, in Idaho it got done. There’s some cause for celebration.

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