BOISE — Water law experts say a March 23 Idaho Supreme Court ruling regarding the Rangen Inc. water call reaffirms the importance of putting the state’s water to its maximum beneficial use, setting a precedent that could limit the scope of future calls.
Rangen, a Hagerman trout farm, filed its call in 2011. In January of 2014, Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman ruled in Rangen’s favor, deciding that irrigation by junior groundwater users within the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer had reduced flows from the spring that supplies the trout farm’s water.
But Spackman applied a so-called trim line, restricting the call to 157,000 acres in which curtailment of wells would result in a significant increase to Rangen’s flows. Spackman set the trim line at a volcanic feature known as the Great Rift, crossing the aquifer downstream of American Falls Reservoir, noting curtailment of 322,000 acres to the east would result in only 1.5 cubic feet per second of additional water reaching Rangen’s spring.
A district judge later overturned Spackman’s use of the trim line, reasoning it ran contrary to the Idaho concept of “first in time, first in right,” and applied the call to the entire area of common groundwater.
The Supreme Court’s recent 3-2 decision found Spackman was justified in using a trim line to ensure maximum beneficial use of the state’s water and to account for uncertainty in the department’s groundwater model.
“The director concluded there is a point where Rangen’s delivery call would require curtailment of vastly more acreage to produce a very small increment of additional water, and at this point, Rangen’s right to seek additional curtailment must give way to the public’s interest in optimum development of the state’s water resources,” the ruling explains.
Idaho Ground Water Appropriators Executive Director Lynn Tominaga said the ruling means his organization won’t have to add an additional 1.5 cfs to the 9 cfs of spring water it’s currently delivering to Rangen through a pipeline for mitigation.
Tominaga also believes the ruling’s precedent “gives a lot of discretion to the director in terms of who can be involved or not involved with a delivery call.”
Rangen attorney Fritz Haemmerle declined to comment on specific details of the case, noting two additional issues on appeal are scheduled for oral arguments before the Supreme Court on April 4.
“All of these rulings in the Rangen case are adding a lot of conjunctive management body of law that is sparse in Idaho,” Haemmerle said.
Spackman said the decision is important, but IDWR hasn’t yet analyzed it carefully to determine applications for other delivery calls.
“I’m grateful for the direction, and it will help us in our administration of water,” Spackman said.
Colorado attorney Sarah Klahn represents the city of Pocatello, which intervened in the case. Klahn said the city owed Rangen water equivalent to a running bathroom faucet, but the call threatened to shut off municipal wells. The city is no longer affected by the call, due to the reinstatement of the trim line.
Klahn said the ruling is “logical and it affirms what we always thought the law was.”
Also in its ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the decision by Spackman and the district court confirming Rangen’s water source was surface water, contrary to IGWA’s arguments that it should have been deemed groundwater.