10/22/14 -The Snake River Basin Adjudication—Organization & The Finish Line

October 22, 2014

As twilight descends upon the Snake River Basin Adjudication (SRBA), it seems fitting to place it into the larger context of water rights settlements in the American West. In Through the Waters: An Oral History of the Snake River Basin Adjudication, editors Randy Stapilus and the Idaho State Bar Water Law Section compiled an impressive collection of interviews with prominent individuals who at times played adversarial, but nevertheless important, roles in the adjudication process. Many in the book credited the SRBA’s first presiding judge, Daniel Hurlbutt, with the adjudication’s overall success. In his interview, Hurlbutt described his goal in organizing the SRBA court administration: “[I wanted to have a] plan that would work, would move through, and that if I dropped dead the next day, any other district judge in the state of Idaho would move in and pick up the case and move it through.”[i] Hurlbutt maintained that a unique aspect of the SRBA was its centralization of court proceedings, in which a single court managed all of the water claims. Earlier Idaho adjudications as well as water arbitrations in other states adhered to a complicated administrative framework in which the state water agency goaded the process.[ii] In the SRBA, the Department of Water Resources ultimately served as an expert in each water claim dispute, resulting in a system in which the state agency was a friend rather than an adversary of the court. Another part of Hurlbutt’s cutting-edge organizational structure was his implementation of technology and a website for the SRBA process.[iii]

However, Hurlbutt and the four SRBA presiding judges who succeeded him were not alone in the process. An integral part of the SRBA’s emphasis on court proceedings was the appointment of three Special Masters, each of whom represented a different region along the Snake River Basin. For approximately 20 years the Special Masters managed the details of the SRBA by processing subcases or water right claims. Special Master Bridgette Bilyeu recalled an overwhelming feeling when the SRBA process began. She confided in her Through the Waters interview that Judge Hurlbutt provided advice by which she operates to this day. “He said to think of it like football,” Bilyeu explained, “You can’t think of the whole football game at once. You just have to block and tackle one thing at a time. …Go through the process, go through the litigation, [and] get things set.”[iv] Indeed, it appears that Bilyeu and other Special Masters heeded Hurlbutt’s advice and approached the arduous undertaking of the SRBA one task at a time.

Today, the organization of Idaho’s SRBA serves as a model that other states struggling with water rights can emulate. The elusive final unified decree was not easy to come by, and it is no surprise that other states continue to struggle with the adjudication process. Utah, for example, has several adjudications that have been ongoing for more than 40 years, while one of Nevada’s adjudications remains active after 98 years. Thus, the interviews in Through the Waters offer not only an unobstructed view of SRBA at the ground level, but also serve as a lens into the organizational structure of the most successful adjudication in U.S. history.

– Stephanie Milne-Lane

Editor’s Note:  From time to time, SHRA comes across fun, interesting and notable items in the archives that we think would be of interest to our readers but that don’t warrant a longer blog post.  This piece is one of a series of vignettes that we hope will bring some of these discoveries to life.  If you’re looking for one of our longer pieces, click on “Features” under “Categories” in the left navigation column.


[i] Idaho State Bar Water Law Section and Randy Stapilus, Through the Waters: An Oral History of the Snake River Basin Adjudication, Ridenbaugh Press: Carlton Press, 2014, p. 164.

[ii] Through the Waters, p.103

[iii] Through the Waters, p.165

[iv] Through the Waters, p.166-167.