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From the archive: Scalia calls Idaho water review 'triumph'

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave the keynote speech at the Snake River Adjudication celebration dinner at the Boise Center on the Grove in Boise, Idaho, on Monday, Aug. 25, 2014.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave the keynote speech at the Snake River Adjudication celebration dinner at the Boise Center on the Grove in Boise, Idaho, on Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. AP

This story appeared in the Idaho Statesman on Aug. 26, 2014 after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died Saturday, appeared at the Snake River Basin adjudication and addressed the complicated issue of water rights.

The completion of the Snake River Basin adjudication is “a great state triumph,” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said Monday.

Scalia spoke at a celebration of the 27-year review of more than 158,000 claims to use water from the basin that begins in Yellowstone National Park, stretches west to the Oregon border and north to Clearwater County. The adjudication is the largest ever completed and comes as states such as California are struggling with a drought caused by nature and over-pumping of its aquifers.

Scalia spoke to more than 440 water users, elected officials, tribal leaders and attorneys who gathered at the Boise Centre to watch the adjudication judge, Eric Wildman, sign the final decree.

“It's a state doing what states ought to do, define private property rights,” Scalia said.

The adjudication removed much of the uncertainty over who owns the right to use the water that runs down the Snake and its tributaries and the groundwater beneath. The McCarren Amendment required the federal government and Indian tribes to file their claims in the state court.

But Scalia praised the states and the tribes for negotiating settlements that kept their cases from coming before him. One issue did come before his court in 1993: whether the federal government had to pay to file claims.

The court ruled against Idaho, and Scalia acknowledged he was in the unanimous majority.

The Snake River meets the domestic needs of 1 million people and provides irrigation water to 3 million acres, Scalia said.

“By eliminating uncertainty it allows the productive work of Idaho to go on,” Scalia said.

Cataloging private property rights goes back at least to William of Normandy's conquest of Britain, when he required cattle to be counted so he could tax them.

“Idaho's adjudication serves a nobler purpose, telling Idahoans just what they own,” Scalia said.

Scalia will go fishing at Silver Creek Tuesday but it's not his first time in Idaho. He said he fished the Lochsa with Lewis and Clark.

But he wasn't talking about the Lewis and Clark who discovered the Snake River in 1905. He fished with University of Idaho law professor Craig Lewis and attorney Merlyn Clark.

The 27 years it took to complete the adjudication may seem long, but some states have been trying since the 1970s and even the 1950s. And 158,000 claims is one claim reviewed every 90 minutes, he said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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