November 24, 2020

Idaho Water Rights – Understanding The Gem State’s System

Part of our Water Rights Guide

Idaho has over 880 square miles of surface water area and 3.3 million acres of irrigated land, much of it part of the Snake River system. It also has 50 administrative basins in charge of coordinating water use within each region, as well as separate irrigation districts that build and manage diversion facilities and other irrigation infrastructure.

All of this makes for a complex system of water rights and regulations that’s important to understand when investing in agricultural land in Idaho, especially as drought and other impacts of climate change contribute to water scarcity in the West.

“By 2050, Idaho is projected to see a 110% increase in drought threat. Production of potatoes and trout will be impacted by drought, and Idaho is the biggest producer of each.” – States at Risk

New approaches to water conservation, such as Aquifer Recharge Districts (ARD) and the Idaho Water Supply Bank, may help to mitigate these issues. In this post, we’ll cover what you need to know about Idaho water rights, including how they’re allocated, where you can purchase additional rights via water markets, and more. It all starts with good data and information.

Background on Water Rights in Idaho

Like several of its neighboring states, including Montana and Oregon, Idaho considers “all waters of the state when flowing in their natural channels, including the waters of all-natural springs and lakes within the boundaries of the state and groundwaters of the state, to be public waters.” It also allows private users to “appropriate” this water, or claim it for beneficial uses such as irrigation, manufacturing, or domestic use.

Once water has been appropriated by a particular user, it’s treated as a “real property right,” similar to land rights. The seniority of water users is based on the “priority date” that the claim was established, which means that junior rights holders may not have reliable access to water in years of drought or abnormally dry weather.

To maintain their allocation, water users must exercise their water rights at least once during a five-year period. Groundwater rights holders may also face limits imposed by Groundwater Management Districts (GWMA) in order to replenish aquifers.

There are several other aspects of Idaho water rights that are worth noting:

Geothermal Wells

Because Idaho is situated in an area with substantial geothermal activity, it has over 200 springs and 1,000 warm-water wells that can be used for renewable energy. Wells with a temperature of 212℉ or higher are considered geothermal resource wells and are regulated by the Idaho Geothermal Resources Act.

Those with a temperature between 85℉ and 212℉ are considered low-temperature geothermal wells (LTG) and are used for heating first and water second. A bond of $5,000 to $20,000 is required in order to drill an LTG well.

Aquifer Recharge Districts

Aquifer Recharge Districts are created by local water rights holders in order to manage recharge projects and prevent aquifer depletion. For example, the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer irrigates up to 1.6 million acres of farmland but is at risk of depletion.

According to Boise State Public Radio, “There’s been a moratorium on the issuance of new water rights across the eastern Snake Plain since 1992. Growing cities, if they run out of water, have to buy an old right.” Groundwater users have agreed to reduce their usage by 240,000 acre-feet per year in order to recharge the aquifer.

Idaho Water Supply Bank

Idaho has one of the oldest water banking systems in the U.S., which dates back to the 1930s. In years of high water flow, canal companies rented out excess water at a rate of 17 cents per acre-foot. The state legislature created a more formal system in 1979, and Idaho now has several rental pools and an official Water Supply Bank.

One attorney describes the system this way: “These rules can be complex and arcane, but provide an important avenue for meeting dynamic water demands.”

How to Confirm a Water Right is Valid

Once you’ve determined that a piece of land has a water right associated with it, you’ll need to find out what kind of right it is and whether it is still valid. As the Department of Water Resources explains, “water right is authorization to use water in a prescribed manner, not to own the water itself.” Remember, if the water right is unused for a period of five consecutive years, it may be forfeited.

Also, you’ll need to submit an application of transfer to the IDWR if any of the following details have changed since the water right was granted:

  • Point of diversion
  • Period of use
  • Place of use
  • Nature of use

If the property is located in a Critical Groundwater Area or a Groundwater Management Area, then there may be a moratorium or other restrictions on new permits.

Idaho offers several ways to look up water rights online, including a map-based water right search, and an irrigation rights finder.

Soon, you’ll be able to use AQUAOSO’s Water Security Platform to research water rights, view the current boundaries of Groundwater Management Areas in Idaho, and much more.

How to Find and Purchase Idaho Water Rights

If a grower doesn’t have sufficient water rights or is a junior rights holder in an area with high water risk, they may be able to lease or purchase additional rights from other rights holders. In 2015, Idaho water users traded a total of 300,000 AF, or $8 million – behind only California and Arizona in terms of volume.

However, the procedures for using the local rental pools are complex, and “there is no listing service for water rights. Buyers must actively search out potential water rights to purchase by making direct contact with existing water right owners.”

Some states have begun creating smart water markets that use algorithmic matching and other technologies to facilitate sales, but it may take some time before these tools are rolled out in Idaho. In the meantime, AQUAOSO makes it easy to research water rights, the water risk of a given parcel of land, and more, all in one place.

How to Present a Water Rights Analysis

Understanding water rights isn’t just about conserving water resources in Idaho. It’s also about making better land deals, investments, and financial decisions in the agricultural sector. After all, in an age of increasing water scarcity, water risk is business risk.

You can use a water rights analysis to provide more context to decision-makers when presenting loan applications and property appraisals. For example:

  • A loan officer can show that the water rights attached to a piece of land are valid and that the water source is likely to be reliable, reducing the overall risk of the loan.
  • The credit officer or senior manager can present an in-depth analysis to regulators, showing that concerns about water rights and water risk have been taken into account.
  • Senior management can review the analysis with the board of the bank or other investors to show how water risk fits into the loan.

As water scarcity becomes a reality in many Western states, agricultural investors can do their part to support our food supply by investing in properties with access to valid water rights and facilitating water rights sales and transfers when appropriate.

With open and transparent water risk data and technological advances in groundwater trading, we can work together to build a more water-resilient future.

You can learn more about state-by-state water rights in our comprehensive Water Rights Guide.

The Bottom Line

Better groundwater trading systems are on their way, but unfortunately, many states still use out-of-date systems to facilitate trades and process water rights applications. If you aren’t familiar with a specific basin, it can be tedious trying to track down the details of the water rights associated with a particular piece of land and chain of title.

AQUAOSO is committed to creating a centralized Water Security Platform that aggregates water rights information from a growing number of states (and counting). Whether you want to find out more about a groundwater basin or look up the water risk of an agricultural property before you close a deal, we can help you out.

Just reach out to us for a free demo, or browse our downloadable guides for insights and actionable solution ideas to key water security issues.


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