Idaho and thoughts on state water rights

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We are fortunate in northern Idaho to have large quantities of water. Even with the great Idaho rivers such as the Snake, Salmon, Payette, and Boise, much of central and southern Idaho is dry land, not usable for farming without a steady supply of irrigation water.

In the southern part of the state, the question of water rights has been present since people started settling in the area. As a result of decades of challenges and legal battles, the formal process of water rights adjudication began in the Snake River Basin in 1987 and continued until 2014.

Adjudication is a formal accounting of all water rights and the associated properties, which binds all parties to an agreement. Typically, a special water court is established for the process. Idaho has continued the adjudication process throughout the state to the point that only a few basins in northern Idaho remain unadjudicated. Currently, the Palouse River Basin adjudication is in progress. The Clark Fork-Pend Oreille River basin adjudication is scheduled to start in January 2021.

Why are we interested in a water rights adjudication? First off, an adjudication defines our water rights in relation to other water rights and thereby protects them. Idaho is an appropriation doctrine state, typically referred to as “first-in-time, first-in-right.” A water right established in 1950 has priority over one established in 1980. Water rights have not historically been an issue in the northern end of the state, but as we grow, and as areas outside Idaho grow, there is potential for disputes. Locally, as more and more water wells are drilled, new wells may start to interfere with existing wells. On a larger scale, water demands across political boundaries may arise. With an adjudication in place, we have firm legal standing for any court challenge.

How do we verify or obtain a water right? The Idaho Department of Water Resources is responsible for issuing water rights in the state. A water right is not required for ground water domestic water use which means a well drilled for an individual house does not require a water right. For any surface water use or groundwater use other than residential, a water right is required. An example of this is pulling water from a lake for irrigation purposes. IDWR has a wealth of information on their website, as well as the forms to apply for a water right. A great starting point on their webpage is

Legislative update:

1. The proposed school funding formula is working its way through the process. There has been significant input from all involved in our K-12 educational system. The process can be grueling and slow, but I am hopeful we will end up with an improved funding formula which will translate to a better school system.

2. Medicaid expansion funding was approved this past week by the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee. The funding bill still needs to go through the House and Senate. There is discussion of some modifications to the program. At this point, they are proposals not yet in bill format. To make any changes will require the normal routing through committees in both bodies as well as through the full House and Senate.

As always, if you have questions, concerns, or input on pending legislation, please feel free to contact me. The Legislature is scheduled for adjournment on March 25.

Sen. Jim Woodward represents District 1, Bonner and Boundary counties, in the Idaho Senate. He can be reached at

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