IDWR talks water adjudication

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Idaho Department of Water Resources water allocation bureau chief Shelley Keen, top right, addressed a large crowd Monday night at the Best Western Edgewater Resort in Sandpoint as he spoke about water adjudication in the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Basin. Public meetings will be held today in Priest Lake and Priest River. (Photo by MARY MALONE)

SANDPOINT — Idaho Department of Resource officials are making their rounds in Bonner and Boundary counties this week as the third phase of the Northern Idaho Adjudication process is slated to begin in the next couple years.

“An adjudication is a process to inventory and confirm, by a court, all of the water rights in a particular river basin,” said Shelley Keen, water allocation bureau chief for IDWR, during the group’s second meeting on Monday, held at the Best Western Edgewater Resort in Sandpoint.

About 140 people packed into, and outside of, the hotel’s meeting room to learn about the process and ask questions, primarily regarding what water adjudication means for their individual situations. Idaho Sen. Jim Woodward and Reps. Sage Dixon and Heather Scott were in attendance as well. Before answering questions, however, Keen detailed the adjudication process and its benefits in hopes of providing answers in advance.

Water rights are property rights, he said, and many of those water rights in Idaho have not been confirmed through a court adjudication process. Confirming the water right establishes what the water is used for and how much is necessary to accomplish that purpose, Keen said, as well as the priority date for the water right. The priority date establishes who gets the water in a time of shortage, when water rights are distributed via a priority system of “first in time, first in right,” Keen said. Under the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, the older, more “senior” water right entitles its holder to fully divert water before any younger, or “junior” water right holder can divert water.

“Having your water right decreed and defined by a court of law can be protection against competition for a finite resource,” Keen said. “Supplies are not always sufficient to meet demands.”

While there are many bodies of water in North Idaho, people use water from small streams, springs and groundwater, with supplies that vary by season and over drought cycles. So there is not always enough water to go around in the smaller water bodies, Keen said. In addition, he said, the Idaho Department of Labor projects a 19.5-percent population growth in North Idaho by 2026, which could potentially bring in developments and subdivisions, in turn bringing in new water uses, putting pressure on the resources.

The Northern Idaho Adjudications were authorized in 2006 by the Idaho Legislature, to be accomplished in three phases. The first was the Coeur d’Alene-Spokane River Basin Adjudication, then the Palouse River Basin Adjudication. The third phase is the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille River Basin, which initially included the Kootenai River Basin, though it was excluded by the Legislature in 2008. As the Coeur d’Alene-Spokane adjudication process nears an end and the Palouse adjudication has started, the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille process is set to begin in 2021, Keen said. To move forward, IDWR is required to seek authority from the Legislature in the upcoming session, which is why the group is hosting a variety of meetings across the two counties this week, to get input and answer questions regarding the process.

One of the first questions from the crowd was from someone who paid a well driller to put a well on their property, and would the state be able to tell them they can’t use the water. Keen said there is a deferral option for domestic and stock water users of 13,000 gallons or less per day. “You don’t have to file for a water right with the Department of Water Resources,” Keen said. “You can establish your water use and your water right the old-fashioned way, by simply diverting it from your well and putting it to beneficial use.”

Another resident asked what the advantages to deferral would be, which Keen said for those who do have small domestic and stock water uses, it saves them the $25 filing fee and the time of filing the claim. On the other hand, Keen said, an advantage to filing a claim, is that a water user can have their water right decreed for $25, which he said is a “pretty good deal.” Also, per the answer to a question that came up later in the meeting, if someone came in and developed land adjacent to the property and dried up the water source for the well, the water right would need to be decreed first for IDWR to provide a remedy, said Garrick Baxter, deputy attorney general for IDWR.

“Through the deferral process, there is the opportunity to come in down the road, but it is much easier now,” Baxter said.

Another question that Keen said he is asked regularly is whether the process would allow the state to put meters on domestic wells and charge for water use. The answer, he said, is no.

A number of questions were asked during the two-hour meeting regarding multi-home communities sharing domestic wells, what happens to the claim in a change of ownership, tribal water rights and more. Anyone who has questions regarding adjudication and were unable to attend any of this week’s meetings can contact the state IDWR office at 208-287-4800, or email, or call the regional office in Coeur d’Alene at 208-762-2800.

With the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille River Basin adjudication expected to start in the next couple years, IDWR officials also decided it was a good time to re-initiate the conversation about the Kootenai River Basin and whether it is appropriate to adjudicate water rights in that area or not. The group hosted two meetings in Bonners Ferry on Tuesday to initiate that conversation. They also held a meeting in Clark Fork on Monday morning.

Today, IDWR officials are heading to West Bonner County. The first meeting of the day will be from 1-3 p.m. at the Inn at Priest Lake in Coolin, 5310 Dickensheet Rd., with a second meeting from 6-8 p.m. at the Priest River Senior Center, 339 East Jackson.


Mary Malone can be reached by email at and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.

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