In this water rights case we are called upon to interpret and apply the provisions of I.C. § 67-4308. We agree with the district court that the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, and we therefore affirm the order of the district court reversing the decision of Idaho Department of Water Resources.
Niagara Springs is located in the Snake River Canyon between the towns of Twin Falls and Bliss. In 1971 the legislature passed a bill, now codified at I.C. § 67-4308, that permits the Idaho Department of Parks & Recreation (IDPR) to appropriate a portion of the waters of Niagara Springs in trust for the citizens of the state. In its entirety this section states:
At the time I.C. § 67-4308 was passed, six diversions of water existed. Beginning with the diversion closest to the headwaters of the spring, these consist of three small pipeline diversions which divert less than one cubic foot per second (cfs) of
On July 12, 1971, shortly after I.C. § 67-4308 was passed, IDPR filed its application to appropriate water with the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR).
IDWR and IDPR both appeal the decision of the district court. Rim View cross-appeals additional claims it made before the district court which were not addressed due to the district court's disposition of the case. We affirm the decision of the district court.
Because this case is an appeal of an administrative determination, our inquiry is independent of the district court's appellate decision. Ferguson v. Board of County Com'rs, 110 Idaho 785, 788, 718 P.2d 1223, 1226 (1986); First Interstate Bank of Idaho v. West, 107 Idaho 851, 693 P.2d 1053 (1984). When reviewing an administrative determination we do not substitute our judgment for that of the agency as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact. I.C. § 67-5215(g). However, we may reverse or modify an agency decision if it is in violation of constitutional or statutory provisions; is in excess of the statutory authority of the agency; is made upon unlawful procedure; is affected by other error of law; is clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the whole record; or is arbitrary or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion. I.C. § 67-5215(g).
The fundamental issue in this litigation is the interpretation of I.C. § 67-4308, particularly the description of the natural spring flow to be appropriated by IDPR. The disputed language defines IDPR's statutory application right as "limited to that portion of Niagra Springs upstream from the presently existing diversions to the headwaters of the springs." I.C. § 67-4308.
The agencies argue that the statute is ambiguous and thereby seek to engage us in the application of various rules of construction in order to determine legislative intent. It is a basic rule of statutory construction that, unless the result is palpably absurd, we must assume that the legislature means what is clearly stated in the statute. Sherwood v. Carter, 119 Idaho 246, 254, 805 P.2d 452, 460 (1991); Miller v. State, 110 Idaho 298, 715 P.2d 968 (1986); State Dep't of Law Enforcement v. One 1955 Willys Jeep, 100 Idaho 150, 595 P.2d 299 (1979). It is also well established that statutes must be interpreted to mean what the legislature intended the statute to mean, Sherwood v. Carter, 119 Idaho 246, 254, 805 P.2d 452, 460 (1991); Miller v. State, 110 Idaho 298, 715 P.2d 968 (1986);
Applying these rules of statutory interpretation we hold that the district court was correct in concluding that the plain language of I.C. § 67-4308 specifies that the "terminus of the instream right is upstream from the highest diversion." An analysis of I.C. § 67-4308 explains the statute's clear and unambiguous meaning. The first clause of I.C. § 67-4308 indicates that the area to be appropriated is "the natural spring flow arising upon" a specific area. The statute then gives a legal description of the general area known as Niagara Springs. This general area is modified by the words "limited to" followed by the specific appropriation area defined as "that portion of Niagara Springs upstream from the present existing diversions to the headwaters of the springs." The district court found this phrase synonymous with the phrase "upstream from the highest diversion existing when H.B. 69 was enacted in 1971" to the headwaters of the springs. We agree. By giving the words "upstream from the present existing diversions" contained in I.C. § 67-4308 "their plain, usual and ordinary meaning," Sherwood v. Carter, 119 Idaho 246, 254, 805 P.2d 452, 460 (1991), they could only mean the area upstream from the highest diversion. Accordingly, we hold that I.C. § 67-4308 is clear and unambiguous in defining the area of appropriation as the portion of the natural springs upstream from the highest existing diversion to the headwaters of the springs at the time the statute was enacted in 1971.
Nevertheless, IDWR and IDPR argue that I.C. § 67-4308 is ambiguous. IDWR proffers an alternate interpretation of the statute which they argue demonstrates an ambiguity in the statute. IDPR adds that because the parties have been disputing the statute's meaning for over nineteen years and have proposed numerous possible interpretations for the terminus of the IDPR's appropriation authority, the statute must be ambiguous. However, ambiguity is not established merely because different possible interpretations are presented to a court. If this were the case then all statutes that are the subject of litigation could be considered ambiguous. As the district court stated:
Therefore, the possible interpretations offered by IDWR and IDPR do not demonstrate
IDWR and IDPR also argue that if the interpretation of the district court is upheld it will defeat the legislature's intent when it enacted the statute. They argue that the purpose of I.C. § 67-4308 was to preserve the scenic beauty of the Niagara Springs area and that unless the statute is read as protecting the creek which flows from the springs the legislator's intent will be defeated. However, this argument is misplaced because the best guide to legislative intent is the words of the statute itself. By its own words I.C. § 67-4308 was meant to preserve the "natural springs" within a specifically defined area. Obviously, the headwaters of the springs and the short distance to the first diversion are protected under clear wording of the statute. The statute does not indicate that the instream flow of the creek was subject to appropriation by IDPR but only a limited portion of "the natural spring flow arising upon" a specified area. Because that area is protected by I.C. § 67-4308, the purpose of the statute will be given effect if its clear words are carried out.
While the plain words of the statute defy the agencies' concern over the purpose of the statute, the purpose of an unambiguous statute is not the concern of the courts when attempting to interpret a statute. This Court has stated that when the language of a statute is definite, courts must give effect to that meaning whether or not the legislature anticipated the statute's result. Unity Light & Power Co. v. Burley, 83 Idaho 285, 361 P.2d 788 (1961). Moreover, "[t]he wisdom, justice, policy, or expediency of a statute are questions for the Legislature alone.... It is the duty of the courts to interpret the meaning of legislative enactments without regard to the possible results." Berry v. Koehler, 84 Idaho 170, 369 P.2d 1010 (1962).
Finally, IDWR argues that it is entitled to judicial deference in its statutory interpretation. However, because the agency's statutory interpretation contradicts the clear and unambiguous expression of the legislature, under the third prong of the test articulated in Simplot v. Idaho State Tax Comm'n, 120 Idaho 849, 820 P.2d 1206 (1991), IDWR is not entitled to judicial deference.
Rim View argues that under I.C. § 12-117, it should be entitled to attorney fees against IDPR for its costs throughout this litigation and against IDWR for its costs on appeal. However, we do not deem the proffered interpretations of I.C. § 67-4308 to be the result of "groundless or arbitrary agency action." Bogner v. State Dep't of Revenue & Taxation, 107 Idaho 854, 693 P.2d 1056 (1984). Moreover, Rim View has not been subjected to "unfair and unjustified financial burdens defending against groundless charges" which should never have been made. Id. Accordingly, Rim View's request for attorney fees is denied.
Because of our disposition of this case, it is unnecessary to consider the remainder of Rim View's arguments on cross-appeal. The holding of the district court reversing the determination of the Idaho Department of Water Resources is affirmed.
Costs to respondent. No fees awarded on appeal.
BISTLINE, J., HURLBUTT, District Judge Pro Tem. and GOFF, District Judge Pro Tem. concur.
McDEVITT, J. concurs in result.