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Water Rights Process Nears

July 15, 2008

By Erica F. Curless, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.

Jul. 15–North Idaho residents with questions about the controversial process of sorting out who owns what water rights are invited to a series of town hall meetings next week.

The state Department of Water Resources will have seven meetings in Kootenai, Benewah and Shoshone counties, starting Monday in Wallace and wrapping up July 24 in Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls.

“These meetings provide an opportunity for people to learn more about the process,” state Director Dave Tuthill said. “We will stay as long as people have questions.”

Idaho is about to embark on a massive adjudication — a court process to document who holds valid water rights and who doesn’t.

Washington is moving in a similar direction, as both states are concerned about their shared drinking source, the massive underground Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.

Plans for the complicated, years-long process has divided North Idaho residents. Those in Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls and Rathdrum are eager to clear up their water rights as development presses in around them, while residents in the rural areas of St. Maries and Wallace are against the idea.

The controversy resulted in legislation this year to scale back and make it voluntary for domestic and stock water rights holders to participate in the adjudication. It also cut the fee in half to $25.

That has helped ease concerns, while allowing residents over the aquifer to establish their water rights.

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, who pushed for the modified adjudication, said she thinks enough people remain concerned that the meetings will have good attendance.

“I was at a picnic in Benewah this weekend and that was one issue they all wanted to know about,” she said. “I encouraged them to attend and told them we fought the battle really hard during the Legislature.”

The adjudication process won’t officially begin until the Northern Idaho Adjudication District Court rules to begin cataloging and confirming 100 years of water use in North Idaho. The court is expected to make a decision Aug. 28. The adjudication process likely will start within a month after the hearing, Tuthill said.

That’s when his agency will start notifying residents that they can make a claim.

If a water user opts not to participate in the process now and later must defend a claim on water, the cost could soar into the thousands. That’s why the state is urging people to participate and only pay the $25 fee for claims involving a domestic well.

“It’s a bargain,” water resources spokesman Bob McLaughlin said.

The process is the same one used for southern Idaho’s Snake River Basin over the past two decades — the largest water rights adjudication in the nation.

The North Idaho adjudication will happen in three phases. The first will sort out the water rights for residents in the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane River basins, including the headwaters in the Wallace area.

Tuthill expects about 13,000 claims. Currently there are only 4,000 water rights on the books in this region.

Phase two will cover the Palouse River Basin where only 300 claims are on record. About 1,500 claims are expected.

Phase three will deal with the Clark Fork and Pend Oreille river basins where there are fewer than 3,000 claims listed. About 9,000 claims are expected there, Tuthill said.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.

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