Why It Took 27 Years And $94 Million To Complete Idaho Water Rights Adjudication

Aug 29, 2014

Idaho Deputy Attorney General Clive Strong helped oversee the 27-year Snake River Basin Adjudication.
Idaho Deputy Attorney General Clive Strong helped oversee the 27-year Snake River Basin Adjudication.
Credit Scott Graf / Boise State Public Radio

The largest-ever review of water rights claims wrapped up in Idaho this week. A project that started in 1987 ended Monday when a judge signed the final decree of the Snake River Basin Adjudication

Conflicts between Idaho Power, its customers and farmers in southern Idaho in the late 1970s prompted the state to tackle the massive review. The goal was simple: to clearly define water rights in the basin to help resolve future disputes during drought. 

Since the project, Idaho has defined more than 158,000 water rights.

Clive Strong is chief of natural resources in the Idaho attorney general’s office. He went to work for the office in 1983. On his third day, Strong says he was assigned to the case that led to the 27 year-review. It was a process everyone knew would take a while.  

“There was kind of a naïve thought by many that it would take 10 years to complete,” he says. “That was really an unrealistic expectation for any of us that were familiar with the issue. We knew it was going to take a substantially longer period of time than that."

Strong says in the 1980s, the cost of the project was estimated at $27 million. Those expenses would be covered by fees charged to water users. The state also planned on the federal government helping.

The federal government didn’t and costs ballooned. Strong says the latest estimate on the project’s cost is $94 million. Idaho’s general fund covered what water-user fees didn’t.

Despite the adjudication taking nearly three times as long as planned – and costing nearly four times what was expected – Strong says it was something Idaho had to accomplish. 

“Prior to the adjudication, we weren’t in a position to administer water rights,” he says. “You can’t administer something you can’t define. Now we have a comprehensive list of all water rights.”

A similar project is getting underway in northern Idaho. 

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