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We must protect Idaho's water sovereignty

by GOVERNOR BRAD LITTLE / Contributing Writer
| June 30, 2024 1:00 AM

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked an agreement between water users in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado in a ruling that allows the federal government to assert control of water in times of disagreement.

Yes, you read that correctly. The conservative leaning U.S. Supreme Court just set a precedent that the feds now have a seat at the state’s water table.

The timing of the decision couldn’t be more relevant for Idaho.

Over the past month, one big Idaho issue flooded social media and the news — water.

The Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer has been in a state of decline since the 1950s, and there are significant disputes between some groundwater users in eastern Idaho and surface water users in the Magic Valley over the administration of the aquifer and the connected Snake River. Unfortunately, the disputes resulted in increased tension between farmers who have different priority dates on their water rights.

The disputes also brought us to the brink of what the Idaho Constitution and law mandates — a widespread state-issued curtailment order of groundwater rights.

It had the potential to sink livelihoods and our economy. Thankfully, we did what Idahoans do best — we worked together to find a solution.

Everyone compromised, reached an agreement for this year, and we’re focusing on a long-term solution that fits the latest science and the needs of all water users.

But what happens if we don’t find a long-term solution?

Water users in states like California that utilize the Colorado River Basin couldn’t fix their own problems, so the feds stepped in with bad solutions and regulatory barriers.

And the SCOTUS water ruling relating to the Rio Grande now opened the barn door wide open to the federal government to tell states how to manage water.

My goal all along was to avoid the heavy hand of government by bringing farmers to the table and hashing out a plan to keep crops wet this year and into the future.

To be clear, the Idaho Department of Water Resources director is required to enforce the Idaho Constitution and Idaho statute. The prior appropriation doctrine clearly says that water users with senior water rights have priority over users with junior water rights. More simply put, when the weather doesn’t give us enough water, the junior water users must mitigate impacts to the senior water users, or face curtailment.

I heard the repeated calls for me to step in and stop the director from administering the law as he is legally required to do. If I had stepped in, Idaho would have set a dangerous precedent of allowing the executive branch to ignore the Idaho Constitution, a choice that likely would lead us down the path toward what our friends in Texas are experiencing — federal and judicial intervention.

Water is truly the lifeblood of Idaho. It supports our communities, energy production, recreation, our economy and, most of all, agriculture. Farmers will always be the backbone of our state and our country. Agriculture is our way of life in Idaho.

That’s why the Legislature and I put half a billion dollars toward water quantity investments over the past three years. It’s why I hosted a Water Summit in August of 2023 with hundreds of Idaho stakeholders, to identify challenges and potential solutions to water issues in Idaho. And it’s why I directed the Idaho Department of Water Resources to create the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer Groundwater Management Plan Advisory Council which has met regularly since 2023 with a goal of creating a groundwater management plan for the aquifer.

While these efforts demonstrate a commitment to Idaho’s water resources and a true desire for Idahoans to determine our water destiny, additional efforts and solutions are required to protect Idaho’s water sovereignty. That’s why I issued an executive order yesterday to chart a path forward on a better long-term solution.

But like the 2024 agreement, the solutions shouldn’t come from the government. They should be carefully crafted by the water users themselves to create a system that works for all farmers. And perhaps most importantly, the plan MUST provide for a healthy aquifer so future generations can farm the Idaho ground of their ancestors.

The stakes are higher than they have ever been. External forces are knocking on Idaho’s door. But despite our challenges with water, we have managed it the best of any western state. That is why we as Idahoans must continue to work together to control our own destiny.

If we don’t, we will lose control of Idaho’s water forever.


Governor Brad Little is governor the state of Idaho. He can be reached at: Office of the Governor, P.O. Box 83720, Boise, ID 83720; phone: 208-334-2100; fax: 208-854-3036; email: gov.idaho.gov/ourgov/contact.html.