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Lemhi County v. Moulton

Supreme Court of Idaho

March 13, 2018

LEMHI COUNTY, a political subdivision of the State of Idaho, by the Board of County Commissioners, Robert Cope, Richard Snyder, and John Jakovac, Plaintiff-Counterdefendant,
PHILLIP F. MOULTON; JAMES SKINNER; PRATT CREEK RANCH LIMITED PARTNERSHIP; LYLE SKINNER as trustee of the ELLIS RAY SKINNER FAMILY LIVING TRUST, Cross Defendants-Cross Claimants-Respondents. and VERDELL OLSON; SCOTT HARTVIGSON as trustee of the ZENAS R. HARTVIGSON LIVING TRUST, Defendants-Counterclaimants-Cross Defendants-Appellants,

         2018 Opinion No. 24

         Appeal from the District Court of the Seventh Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Lemhi County. Hon. Alan C. Stephens, District Judge.

         The district court's judgment is affirmed in part, and remanded for specification of drainage basin location.

          Hawley, Troxell Ennis & Hawley, LLP, Pocatello, for appellants. Benjamin C. Ritchie argued.

          Frederick H. Snook, Salmon, and Giles & Thompson Law, PLLC, Boise, for respondents. Chip Giles argued.

          BRODY, JUSTICE.

         This is a case about whether and to what extent an uphill landowner can send irrigation wastewater across a downhill landowner's property. This case began when Lemhi County filed suit against the owners of both ranches seeking to relieve flooding along one of its roads. Phillip Moulton owns and operates a ranch that is on higher ground than the adjacent ranch that Verdell Olson operates. Surface and irrigation water that begins on Moulton's ranch makes its way to the Lemhi River through various channels. The one at issue in this case is a steep draw that sends water across a county road and through the downhill ranch that Olson operates. Lemhi County reached a settlement with Olson, and the remaining issue for the district court was whether an easement or a natural servitude permitted Moulton to send water down the draw. The district court held that both an easement and natural servitude permit Moulton to send up to 3.25 cubic feet per second of water down the draw. Olson appealed. We affirm the judgment of the district court to the extent it provides for an easement and natural servitude, but remand for specification of the location of the drainage basin on Olson's property.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This appeal involves agricultural property in Lemhi County, approximately ten miles southeast of Salmon, Idaho. The case began in 2011 when Lemhi County sought declaratory relief to prevent flooding on the Lemhi County Backroad ("Backroad"). The Backroad runs generally north-to-south, and divides the two ranches at issue in this case-the Moulton-Skinner Ranch (uphill property) and the Hartvigson Ranch (downhill property).

         The Appellants are Scott Hartvigson as Trustee of the Zenas R. Hartvigson Living Trust, and Verdell Olson, who leases and operates the Hartvigson Ranch. The Hartvigson Ranch spans approximately 200 acres and is situated on the Lemhi Valley floor near the Lemhi River. The ranch has been in the Hartvigson family since 1896, and the Hartvigson Trust has leased the ranch to Olson consistently since 1976. Most of the Hartvigson Ranch is on the west side of the Backroad, but a small portion extends into a steep draw on the east side (the "Hartvigson Draw"). The water that flows through this draw runs under the Lemhi County Backroad through one of two culverts, across the Hartvigson Ranch, and into a drainage that feeds into the Lemhi River.

         The Moulton-Skinner Ranch is on higher ground on the east side of the Backroad. It includes land the Moulton family has owned since 1971, as well as land he purchased-formerly the Skinner Ranch-after this case was filed in the court below. The Moulton-Skinner Ranch has three drainages: (1) Pratt Creek's main channel (southernmost), (2) the low-lying basin splitting the Moulton Ranch (middle), and (3) the Warm Springs drainage (northernmost). Only the basin drainage is at issue, as neither the lower portion of Pratt Creek nor Warm Springs feeds into the Hartvigson Draw.

         Historically, both the Skinner and Moulton ranches used flood irrigation. The original Moulton Ranch began converting from flood to sprinkler irrigation in the 1970s, while the Skinner Ranch converted in 1999 and 2000. The Skinner and Moulton ranches' water rights out of Pratt Creek have the same priority date and total approximately 20 cubic feet per second ("CFS"), a portion of which is used on lands where the resulting waste water flows through the Hartvigson Draw. In addition to irrigation waste water, natural spring and surface water from the basin also traveled through the draw.

         Water flowing through this draw formed the basis of Lemhi County's declaratory judgment action in September 2011. The county claimed that in November 2010, Verdell Olson obstructed the flow of water from the Hartvigson Draw through the culverts, which caused flooding along that area of the Backroad. Lemhi County noted in its complaint Olson's failure to allow the water to pass unobstructed, based at least in part on his allegation that the Moulton-Skinner Ranch sent too much water down the draw, which caused damage to the Hartvigson Ranch.

         On May 9, 2016, the district court entered a judgment that the Hartvigson Ranch allow drainage of natural surface water in the amount of 3.25 CFS through the culverts and across its lands, "subject to weather events or other natural conditions that may result in larger amounts." That judgment left unresolved how much water, if any, the Moulton-Skinner Ranch could legally send down the Hartvigson Draw. The court held a three-day bench trial from May 11 through May 13, 2016, at which nine witnesses testified and an additional two provided deposition testimony.

         On July 14, 2016, the district court entered its findings of fact and conclusions of law. The court found that the channel through the basin, down the Hartvigson Draw, across the Hartvigson property, and eventually into the Lemhi River was a natural waterway. Additionally, the district court found that this water flow met the requirements for the Moulton-Skinner Ranch to establish a prescriptive easement. The court entered a judgment-later amended to comply with I.R.C.P. 54-permitting Moulton to send water in the amount of 3.25 CFS down the basin drainage that flows through the Hartvigson Draw under both an easement and natural servitude theory. The Appellants timely appealed.


         This Court's review of a lower court's decision is limited to determining whether the evidence supports the court's factual findings, and whether those finding suppose its legal conclusions. Akers v. Mortenson, 147 Idaho 39, 43, 205 P.3d 1175, 1179 (2009) (citing Benninger v. Derifield, 142 Idaho 486, 489, 129 P.3d 1235, 1238 (2006)). "It is the province of the trier of fact to weigh conflicting evidence and testimony and to judge the credibility of witnesses." Sun Valley Shamrock Res., Inc. v. Travelers Leasing Corp., 118 Idaho 116, 118, 794 P.2d 1389, 1391 (1990); I.R.C.P. 52(a). This Court will not overturn on appeal findings of fact based on substantial evidence, even if conflicting. Hunter v. Shields, 131 Idaho 148, 151, 953 P.2d 588, 591 (1998) (citing Highlands, Inc. v. Hosac, 130 Idaho 67, 69, 936 P.2d 1309, 1311 (1997)). Accordingly, "the trial court's finding of fact will be liberally construed in favor of the judgment entered." Sun Valley Shamrock, 118 Idaho at 118, 794 P.2d at 1391. We exercise free review over conclusions of law in light of the facts found, however. Brown v. Greenheart, 157 Idaho 156, 161, 335 P.3d 1, 6 (2014).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The district court did not err in determining an easement for 3.25 CFS of water ...

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