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Ranchers and Farm Bureau intervene in Idaho-U.S. water rights case

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Idaho ranchers and the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation are intervening in a battle between state and federal rights centered around water usage laws in the state. The lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice challenges recently-passed state water rights laws, saying that Idaho’s laws that allow ranchers to take control of water rights on federally managed lands violate the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause and the Idaho Constitution. 

»Related: Forest Service clamps down on N.M. family’s herd, sparking pro-ranching rally

The complex water law case involves a nearly three-decade effort by the Snake River Basin Adjudication Court that concluded in 2014 and determined ownership of some 160,000 water rights. The case involves a 2007 Idaho Supreme Court ruling involving Joyce Livestock Company’s claim to water rights — to water livestock — on federal rangeland disallowed the U.S.’s claim to those rights. 

The state’s law says that stock water rights must be put to “beneficial use” or be forfeited. Under Idaho’s process for determining whether stock water rights have been put to beneficial use, the federal government could lose many of those decreed rights.

The Mountain States Legal Foundation filed a motion to intervene in the ongoing case of United States v. Idaho on behalf of affected Idaho ranchers Paul Nettleton, Tim Lowry, Don Pickett, and the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation. 

According to Capital Press, Don Pickett, co-owner of Pickett Ranch & Sheep Co., filed an affidavit with the court saying that the Snake River Basin Adjudication “process severely limit our exercise of our water rights and render them effectively worthless, because it allows the federal government to dictate our use of our own stock water rights.”

The lawsuit filed by the federal government aims to nullify the state’s administrative procedure, arguing that the statute violates federal law. Ranchers — and the state of Idaho — say that Idaho’s water belongs to Idaho, not the federal government. 

Joe Bingham of Mountain States Legal Foundation says, “In the long run, the federal government’s fanciful legal theories threaten Idaho’s sovereignty, its ranchers’ livelihood, and the sovereignty of other states. The law is crystal clear — Idaho’s waters belong to the people of Idaho, who have entrusted it to their state government, not to Washington, D.C.”

»Related: Droughts indicate far-reaching impacts, AFBF survey shows

Ranchers in other states, such as New Mexico, face similar challenges on Forest Service leases. As drought continues across the Western United States, producers grapple with the increasing challenges of producing food on limited water resources. 

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