May 03, 2021

Weekly Column: Protecting Idaho Water Rights

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

Effective management of water resources affects the vitality of communities and their ability to grow and develop.  Respecting water rights is a central factor in the management of water resources.  I have been a longtime opponent of federal agencies eroding states’ water rights practices.  I have authored and introduced legislation in multiple congresses to prevent federal encroachment on the management of water resources, best controlled at the state and local levels.  I am again backing legislation in this Congress to protect the private property rights of farmers, ranchers, states, cities and local conservation efforts from being trampled on by the federal government.

The federal government has a long history of attempting to seize control of private water rights, undermining state water laws throughout the West, including Idaho.  Forcing multiple use permit holders to turn over privately owned water rights to the federal government as a condition of permit renewal is one of the means employed to exert federal control over water resources.  The Clean Water Act, the Federal Land Policy Management Act and wilderness designations have also been vehicles used to attempt to erode state sovereignty over water. 

Another of the more recent examples of federal overreach jeopardizing this critical resource is the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule that was nothing short of a federal government power grab and seizure of states’ rights and private property rights.  Under the WOTUS rule, even dry creek beds and ponds on private property could fall under federal control, under rules that utilized the spread of rainwater.  The Trump Administration did away with that rule and replaced it with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled “navigable waters” can be regulated, but “navigable waters” do not include irrigation ditches and small streams on private property.  I co-sponsored a resolution in this Congress backing the Navigable Waters Protection Rule finalized by the Trump Administration that regulates “navigable” waters within federal confines, and I will continue to oppose any attempts in the current Administration and Congress to undermine state water sovereignty. 

To also further this effort, in March, I joined fellow U.S. Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) in introducing S. 855, the Water Rights Protection Act, to protect privately-owned waters from being seized by the federal government.  The Water Rights Protection Act would: 

  • Forbid the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture from mandating water users transfer water rights to the United States or purchase water rights in the name of the United States as a condition of any permit, lease or other use agreement;
  • Prevent unlawful seizures of groundwater; and
  • Recognize state water law and require coordination with states.

The Water Rights Protection Act has been referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.  Senator Barrasso serves as the Committee’s Ranking Member, and Senator Risch serves as a senior member of the Committee. 

We, unfortunately, must be ever watchful for attempts by federal agencies and some in Congress to ignore long-established statutory provisions concerning state water rights and state water contracts.  The Water Rights Protection Act will help protect private property rights, uphold state water law and prohibit federal takings.  I look forward to working toward its enactment that will protect this critical Idaho resource and defend the fundamental western value of state water sovereignty.   

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