BOISE — A bill introduced in the Idaho Legislature would codify into state law a landmark court decision over who owns in-stream stock watering rights on federally administered land.
Senate Bill 1102, which is sponsored by Sen. Mark Harris, a Republican rancher from Soda Springs, was printed by the Senate Resources and Environment Committee and awaits a public hearing.
If passed into law, it could benefit thousands of ranchers in Idaho who own cattle that graze on federal land.
Southern Idaho ranchers and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management filed thousands of overlapping claims to in-stream stock watering rights on BLM land during Idaho’s Snake River Basin Adjudication.
All but two of the ranchers — Tim Lowry and Paul Nettleton of Owyhee County — backed off when they realized that fighting the BLM in court would cost a lot of money.
After more than a decade of court battles, the Idaho Supreme Court in 2007 ruled in the ranchers’ favor.
In a case known as the Joyce Livestock decision, the court ruled the BLM couldn’t own those rights because it doesn’t own cattle and therefore can’t put the water to beneficial use.
“The BLM was contesting the water right of the ranchers who were using it for beneficial use,” Harris said. “What this legislation would do is put this decision into code so that won’t happen again.”
Harris’ bill would allow those other ranchers to file claims on stock watering rights on BLM land.
Sen. Bert Brackett, a Republican rancher from Rogerson, introduced companion legislation, Senate Bill 1101, that would set a fee of $25 per claim filed. If a rancher files multiple claims, the total amount they could be charged is $100.
His bill also waives any costs associated with the publication, investigation and assistance of those claims by the Idaho Department of Water Resources.
“I’m part of a larger class of (thousands) of other stockmen who might benefit from this legislation,” Brackett said.
Utah codified the Joyce Livestock decision into its state law in 2008.
“This is way overdue,” Idaho Farm Bureau Federation President and Shelley area farmer Bryan Searle told Capital Press after the Senate committee agreed to print the bills.
Harris said the bill is an effort to prevent any other ranchers from having to go through what Nettleton and Lowry did. They won the court battle but were left with a total of $1.5 million in legal fees.
“The majority of the water in the state of Idaho comes off of public lands managed by the federal government,” he said. “This is a big deal.”
BLM spokeswoman Erin Curtis said there is a lot of legal nuance involved with the issue and those water rights that ranchers could file for if the legislation passes have already been decreed to the BLM during the SRBA.
If the bill passes and ranchers file for those claims, “it would likely end up in BLM objecting,” she said.