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Meeting addresses questions about Bear River water adjudication

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

PRESTON – The Bear River Basin Adjudication is officially underway and people still have a lot of questions about the process.

Many of their questions and concerns were addressed during a Sept. 26 Bear River Water Adjudication Information meeting in Preston.

About 50 people, most of them agricultural producers, attended the meeting, which was hosted by Franklin County Farm Bureau.

The purpose of the adjudication, which began in July 2021, is to make a complete and accurate accounting of existing water rights in the Bear River basin.

The Bear River runs through part of Wyoming, Idaho and Utah and the adjudication process affects Bear Lake, Caribou, Franklin and Oneida counties and part of Power and Cassia counties.

The Idaho Department of Water Resources is acting as an independent expert and technical assistant in the process.

A water adjudication in the basin was finalized in 1920 but since then, many farms and ranches have changed ownership and those water rights have been fragmented over time, state Sen. Mark Harris, a rancher from Soda Springs, told participants at the Sept. 26 meeting.

At the same time, fast-growing Utah has its eyes on water from the basin, added Harris, who sponsored the 2020 bill that got the Bear River water adjudication process rolling.

“The demand for water is going to get worse and worse, so we need to know what we have,” he said. “It’s extremely important we get that straightened out and know exactly what we have as a state.”

“We’re concerned about what’s going to happen in the future with Utah and the Great Salt Lake,” Pocatello water rights attorney TJ Budge told meeting participants.

There was a lot of discussion about starting a Bear River basin water adjudication, he said.

“Most people eventually came to the conclusion that if we don’t do it now, we’re going to regret it in the future,” Budge said. “We just have to buckle down and push through it and we’ll be better in the end.”

Former state lawmaker Marc Gibbs, who also sponsored the bill that started the Bear River adjudication process, said there will be some pain involved in the process but he believes in the end it will prove to be a big benefit for all water users in the basin.

“It’s going to be a long process and it’s not going to be easy for some people … but in the end, I think we’re going to be happy with adjudication because we will know what water rights we have,” said Gibbs, a member of the Idaho Water Resource Board.

The Snake River Basin Adjudication, which began in 1987 and officially ended in 2014, decreed 158,600 water rights in southern Idaho.

The Bear River adjudication is expected to last about 15 years and determine thousands of water rights.

The Idaho Department of Water Resources created a field office in Preston specifically to help people get through the adjudication process, said Christopher Holmes, an IDWR water rights supervisor in the Preston office.

He encouraged people to contact the office and work with IDWR staff to ensure their water rights are recognized and decreed.

“The whole purpose of (the adjudication) is to protect your water rights going forward,” he said. “For us to protect your water rights, we need to know what they are. The whole purpose of this office is to help people file claims. We’re here to help you get through it.”

Holmes said the vast majority of claims will go through the process easily with no objections.

Budge said less than 1 percent of water rights claims during the SRBA involved attorneys.

“Most of you will be just fine meeting with (IDWR) staff,” he said.

Franklin County farmer and rancher Dan Garner said a lot of people still have concerns about the adjudication process.

“I felt the meeting … went a long way toward clearing up the fears and concerns that the citizens of Franklin County have about the adjudication process,” he said. “I am optimistic that the meeting helped clarify and simplify some of the questions” that people have about the process.

Franklin County farmer and rancher Jason Fellows said that although the adjudication will benefit farmers and ranchers by making sure their water rights are secured, there are still many valid questions and concerns about the process.

“These types of meetings I think help take away that concern,” he said.

IDWR has already begun accepting water rights claims in Water District 11, which includes the Montpelier and Soda Springs areas, and will soon begin accepting claims in Water District 13, which includes Preston and Grace.

Then it will begin accepting claims in Water District 15, which includes Malad, and then Water District 17, which includes Oneida County and part of Power County and Cassia County.

The water department held a public meeting to discuss the process in district 11 and will hold similar meetings in districts 13, 15 and 17.