New Idaho state law washes out feds
—State law prevents federal government from acquiring stockwater rights
Stockwater on federal lands in Idaho are now officially reserved solely for livestock owners—and not the federal government. According to a bill signed by Gov. C.L.
“Butch” Otter on March 27, “No agency of the federal government, nor any agent acting on its behalf, shall acquire a stockwater right unless the agency owns livestock and puts the water to beneficial use.”
The bill, finalized as S. 1111, goes on to clarify that “a permittee on a federally-administered grazing allotment shall not be considered an agent of the federal government” and thus are able to hold those stockwater rights.
WLJ spoke with Karen Williams, Natural Resource Policy Director for the Idaho Cattle Association (ICA), who provided us with ICA’s letter of support for S. 1111.
“The clarification of beneficial use of stock water rights on federal lands in Idaho is a top legislative priority of ICA,” the letter states, adding that the bill will secure a path forward for stockmen across the state to file claim on the water they put to beneficial use.
“Securing these stock water rights is an important step in preserving continued sustainable grazing access for Idaho’s citizens.”
S. 1111 codifies an Idaho Supreme Court decision from 2007, Joyce Livestock Company v. United States of America. The ruling was the result of a legal battle between two ranches and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), where the agency had filed for water rights overlapping those already filed for by the two ranches.
BLM had filed overlapping claims with many ranches in southern Idaho during the Snake River Basin Adjudication (SRBA), making the Supreme Court decision and S.1111 an important one for Idaho’s ranchers.
“Thanks to the tireless efforts of the ranchers involved in the …case,” says ICA’s letter, “the Idaho Supreme Court has held that stock water beneficial use could only be claimed by entities that own livestock and that federal ownership or management of land does not constitute beneficial use.”
ICA points out the new law will also “prevent federal agency overreach by precluding their ability to request forfeiture of permittees’ stock water rights to the federal government in exchange for continued grazing.”
In recent years, some BLM and U.S. Forest Service offices have, in fact, threatened ranchers’ grazing permits in exchange for government ownership or partial ownership of the water rights on allotments.
Williams told WLJ that now that S.1111 has passed, it’s “very important to get the word out to ranchers that they have the opportunity to file for stockwater rights within their allotments.”
On that note, ICA supported a related bill that was also signed into law by Gov. Otter, one that limits the cost of filing for stockwater rights. S. 1101 calls for a $25 fee per claim, but only for the first four claims per claimant. A rancher will spend no more than $100 filing for stockwater rights on their federal allotment(s).
Ranchers who wish to obtain decreed water rights in the Snake River Basin should visit Idaho Department of Water Resources’ page, https://www.idwr.idaho.gov/water-rights/adjudication/SRBA/. Even though the SRBA was completed in 2014, ranchers can still file for stockwater rights, thanks to a deferral provided by the SRBA Court.
The website also provides information on filing claims in the ongoing Northern Idaho Adjudication and the Bear River Basin Adjudication. — Theodora Johnson, WLJ Correspondent