Wilderness water wins round in court

  In what Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, calls a "devastating blow to Idaho's water sovereignty," almost 3,000 claims to water rights upstream of Idaho wilderness areas were placed in doubt by an Oct. 1 ruling of the Idaho Supreme Court.

The court ruled 3-2 that when the federal government established wilderness areas in Idaho, it also reserved water rights "by implication." That means upstream rights established after the designation of the Frank Church-River of No Return, the Gospel Hump, and the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness areas could be overturned.

Wilderness activists are hailing the ruling, but some Idahoans are worried. Idaho uses more water per person than any other state in the nation, largely because of its reliance on irrigated agriculture. The 3.5 million acres of irrigated farmland in southern Idaho earn $2.9 billion each year. Many fear that the decision could harm agriculture as well as ski resorts that rely on water to make snow.

Bruce Bernard, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, says the Forest Service is not out to claim every drop of water in the river, and that conflicts with private rights will be minimal.

Says Bernard, "It appears that there are some who want to portray this decision in the most draconian light instead of working with us to make this decision work."

The state has asked the Idaho Supreme Court to rehear the case and may petition the U.S. Supreme Court as well. Sen. Crapo has also introduced a bill in Congress to preserve state control of water, a move facing stiff opposition from environmental groups.

* Rocky Barker

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