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Sylte v. Idaho Department of Water Resources

Supreme Court of Idaho

June 14, 2019

GORDON SYLTE, an individual; SUSAN GOODRICH, an individual; JOHN SYLTE, an individual; and SYLTE RANCH LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY, an Idaho limited liability company, Petitioners-Appellants,
v.
IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF WATER RESOURCES and GARY SPACKMAN, in his capacity as the Director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources, Respondents-Respondents on Appeal, and TWIN LAKES IMPROVEMENT ASSOCIATION, MARY A. ALICE, MARY F. ANDERSON, MARY F. ANDERSON, et al., DEBRA ANDREWS, JOHN ANDREWS, MATTHEW A. BAFUS, CHARLES & RUTH BENAGE, ARTHUR CHETLAIN, JR., CLARENCE & KURT GEIGER FAMILES, MARY K. COLLINS / BOSCH PROPERTIES, SANDRA COZZETTO, WES CROSBY, JAMES CURB, MAUREEN DEVITIS, DON ELLIS, SUSAN ELLIS, SCOTT ERICKSON, JOAN FREIJE, AMBER HATROCK, BARBARA HERR, WENDY & JAMES HILLIARD, PAT & DENISE HOGAN, STEVEN & ELIZABETH HOLMES, LEIF HOUKAM, DONALD JAYNE, DOUGLAS I. & BERTHA MARY JAYNE, TERRY KIEFER, MICHAEL KNOWLES, ADAM KREMIN, ROBERT KUHN, RENE LACROIX, JOAN LAKE-OMMEN, LARRY D. & JANICE A. FARIS LIVING TRUST, TERRY LALIBERTE, PATRICK E. MILLER, WILLIAM H. MINARTE, ANGELA MURRAY, DAVID R. NIPP, JOHN NOONEY, STEVE & PAM RODGERS, KIMBERLI ROTH, DAVID & LORI SCHAFER, DARWIN R. SCHULTZ, MOLLY SEABURG, HAL SUNDAY, TCRV LLC, TWIN LAKES, LLC, RICK & CORRINNE VAN ZANDT, GERALD J. WELLER, BRUCE & JAMIE WILSON, DAVID ZIUCHKOVSKI, PAUL FINMAN, and TWIN LAKES FLOOD CONTROL DISTRICT NO. 17, Intervenors-Respondents on Appeal.

          Appeal from the District Court of the First Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Kootenai County. Eric J. Wildman, District Judge.

         The district court's determination is affirmed.

          Givens Pursley, LLP, Boise, for appellants. Michael P. Lawrence argued.

          Lawrence G. Wasden, Idaho Attorney General, Boise, for respondent Idaho Department of Water Resources. Kristina Fugate argued.

          Parsons Behle & Latimer, Boise, for respondents-intervenors Twin Lakes Improvement Association, et al. Norman M. Semanko argued.

          Barker Rosholt Simpson, LLP, Boise, for respondent-intervenor Twin Lakes Flood Control District No. 17. Albert P. Barker argued.

          BRODY, JUSTICE.

         This appeal concerns the distribution of water to water right 95-0734 in the Twin Lakes-Rathdrum Creek Drainage Basin. Sylte Ranch, LLC, is the current claimant on water right 95-0734, which dates from the year 1875 and provides natural flow stockwater from Rathdrum Creek. On September 20, 2016, Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) issued a letter of instructions to the local watermaster in response to a complaint that he was releasing storage water from Twin Lakes contrary to the 1989 Final Decree that established all existing rights to Twin Lakes' surface waters, tributaries, and outlets. These instructions led Sylte to file a Petition for Declaratory Ruling, arguing that IDWR should set aside and reverse the instructions because they improperly limited water right 95-0734 to Twin Lakes' natural tributary inflow. Twin Lakes Improvement Association, et al., and Twin Lakes Flood Control District intervened in the case. Following cross motions for summary judgment, IDWR issued a Final Order, in which it upheld the instructions and granted intervenors' motion for summary judgment. Sylte then sought judicial review and the district court affirmed IDWR's Final Order. Sylte timely appealed to this Court. We affirm the district court's determination to uphold IDWR's Final Order because the instructions complied with the plain language of the 1989 Final Decree.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Twin Lakes, formerly known as Fish Lakes, is a body of water consisting of two lakes connected by a man-made channel that was constructed in the early 1900s. The water flows from the upper lake into the lower lake. Fish Creek is the major inlet of the lakes while Rathdrum Creek is the only outlet. This water system lies in mountainous timberland, about three miles north of Rathdrum, Idaho and at the foot of the Selkirk Mountains. In 1906, a dam and outlet structure were constructed at the outlet of Lower Twin Lake, just above Rathdrum Creek.

         A general adjudication rights to the use of surface waters in the Twin Lakes-Rathdrum Creek Drainage Basin, including its tributaries and outlets, began in 1975. Following a trial, District Judge Richard Magnuson issued a Memorandum Decision (February 22, 1989) and Final Decree (April 19, 1989, hereinafter the "Final Decree") as part of the general adjudication. The Final Decree includes a list of all existing rights to Twin Lakes' surface waters, tributaries, and outlets as of May 23, 1977. More specifically, the Final Decree provides the following pertinent conclusions of law:

An appropriator is entitled to maintenance of the stream conditions substantially as they were at the time the appropriator made his or her appropriation, if a change in the stream conditions would interfere with the proper exercise of the water right.
Only two waters identified herein, Nos. 95-0973 and 95-0974, are entitled to store water and to make beneficial use of stored waters in Twin Lakes. All other water rights with source of Twin Lakes tributary to Rathdrum Creek are direct flow water rights and are entitled to divert, on the basis of priority, a combined rate of flow equal to the inflow to the lakes. Stated in another manner, direct flow water rights can be utilized to divert from Twin Lakes only if the diversions do not injure the storage water rights in Twin Lakes.
From November 1 of each year until March 31 of the next year, the two storage water rights enable Twin Lakes to be filled to the level of 10.4 feet on the Staff Gauge. From April 1 to October 31 of each year, the rights to fill the lakes is superseded by the right of existing and future direct flow water rights to divert natural inflows to the lakes. Thus from April 1 to October 31 of each year the level of Twin Lakes will decrease due to evaporation and seepage losses, during the periods when direct flow water rights divert the natural inflows.
The priority system of water rights within the Twin Lakes - Rathdrum Creek Drainage Basin applies to all water rights on sources that are hydraulically connected. For example, an early priority right on Rathdrum Creek is senior to a later priority water right on Fish Creek.
When seepage and evaporation losses from Twin Lakes exceed the total natural tributary inflow to Twin Lakes, no water will be released from the lakes to satisfy downstream water rights, with the exception of Water Right No. 95-0734. When this occurs, Water Right No. 95-0734 and water rights that divert from Twin Lakes and from the tributaries to Twin Lakes may divert the natural flow, but not the stored waters, on the basis of water right priority.

         The Final Decree established only two storage water rights in the Twin Lakes-Rathdrum Creek Drainage Basin, which are water rights 95-0973 and 95-0974. "All other water rights that divert from Twin Lakes are direct flow water rights," which "utilize the flows passing through the lake and are established on a priority basis." While there is natural lake storage, the Final Decree established that "no water right has been developed for the use of this water because it provides a base for the overlying storage rights." Twin Lakes Improvement Association owns the storage water right for water located between the Staff Gauge height of 0.0 and 6.4 feet (right no. 95-0974) in the amount of 5, 360 acre-feet. The second storage water right is for water located between the Staff Gauge height of 6.4 and 10.4 feet (right no. 95-0973). While the Final Decree determined the Bureau of Reclamation owned this water right in 1989, the Bureau of Reclamation subsequently conveyed its interest in this right to Twin Lakes Flood Control District.

         Sylte Ranch, LLC, is the current claimant of water right 95-0734, which provides natural flow stockwater from Rathdrum Creek to 300 head of stock. This water right has a maximum rate of 0.07 cubic feet per second (cfs) and a maximum amount of 4.10 acre feet per annum (AFA). Gordon Sylte, Susan Goodrich, John Sylte, and Sylte Ranch, LLC, (collectively, "Sylte"), brought this appeal against IDWR to request the court set aside and reverse IDWR's instructions to their local watermaster, arguing that IDWR improperly limited water right 95-0734 to Twin Lakes' natural tributary inflow.

         Sylte's water right was established in 1875 when the water system's natural condition provided "sufficient direct flow water in Rathdrum Creek . . . to provide 0.07 cfs to the appropriator on a continuous year-round basis." However, in 1989 Judge Magnuson noted in his memorandum decision that "the natural state of Rathdrum Creek in 1875 was definitely not the same as the natural state in 1906 or now." Inflow to Twin Lakes changed since 1875 as a result of climate changes, logging operations' effects on the timber canopy and drainage basin, and the constructions of the dam and outlet structure in 1906. As a result, since 1906, there have been periods when seepage and evaporation losses from Twin Lakes exceed the natural tributary inflow. Neither Sylte nor its predecessors ever appealed, or otherwise challenged, the Final Decree.

         On September 20, 2016, IDWR issued a letter (hereinafter "the Instructions") to the WD 95C Watermaster in response to a complaint that he was releasing storage water from Twin Lakes contrary to the Final ...


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