Ray Rigby

Attorney Ray Rigby talks about his 60-year career at his office in Rexburg in this 2011 file photograph.

A former state senator from Madison County and one of Idaho’s preeminent experts on water law died Wednesday.

Ray Rigby was 96. A Rexburg native, he grew up on his family’s farm during the Great Depression and served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II as a B-29 flight engineer. After returning home, he graduated from the University of Idaho Law School. He served seven terms as Madison County Prosecuting Attorney. He founded his private practice, Rigby, Andrus and Rigby, in 1950.

“Bottom line, I was honored to know him and have him as a friend and as a mentor,” said Clive Strong, a longtime deputy attorney general who worked closely with Rigby. “I’ve tried to emulate my practice based upon what I’ve learned from Ray.”

Strong said he considered Rigby a personal friend, a “real gentleman” and someone who always looked for solutions.

“He could disagree with people and do so in a very cordial way. … He was always devoted to find a solution that was consistent with the rule of law,” Strong said.

A Democrat, Rigby represented his home county in the state Senate from 1965 to 1972.

“We operated together as a team,” said Phil Batt, a Republican who was Idaho’s governor from 1995 to 1999 and whose time in the state Senate before that overlapped with Rigby’s. “He was a good man. I liked to work with him.”

Rigby “was instrumental in the enactment of several laws and programs which have since benefited every citizen of Idaho,” according to his obituary.

“He was in the Legislature before I came into the (attorney general’s) office, but still people remembered him as being one of those people who worked across the aisle, who was there to do the public good, not to make political points,” said Jim Jones, a former Republican attorney general.

Rigby’s law practice emphasized water law and rural electric cooperatives — he was known as “Mr. Water” according to his obituary. He represented numerous canal companies and the “Committee of Nine,” the watermasters of the major irrigation projects on the Upper Snake River, and he served on both the Western States Water Council and the Interstate Council on Water Policy, including as chairman.

Strong and Jones, who was elected in 1982, worked closely with Rigby on what would become one of the most important cases of all of their careers. In 1982, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled Idaho Power had a senior water right at the Swan Falls Dam, threatening to upend an agreement that had been in place since the 1950s that subordinated Idaho Power’s water rights to other users. Effectively, Jones said, the ruling gave Idaho Power control of the full flow of the river at the dam near Kuna.

Jones and then-Gov. John Evans went to work to find a solution. Strong, who was then a new lawyer in the Attorney General’s office, worked on the case, and Evans named Rigby to head the task force working on the issue.

“So Ray was the leader of the pack,” Jones said. “I went into the (attorney general’s) office in 1983, and Ray was a very instrumental person in advising the governor and I, because the governor and I were the principal combatants with the power company.”

They reached a deal in late 1984, and Jones and Strong credited Rigby with breaking the impasse between the parties and coming up with the final deal giving Idaho Power minimum flows of 3,900 cfs at Swan Falls during the summer and 5,600 cfs during the winter.

“He is one of the people who really gets credit for saving the Snake River for the people of Idaho,” Jones said.

Jones wrote a book about the case, “A Little Dam Problem,” that was published in 2016. He dedicated it to five people, and Rigby was one of them.

Rigby was active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving at different times as a bishop, as a stake president at Ricks College, as a counselor in the Boise and Pocatello missions, and as a patriarch.

Rigby is survived by seven children, 34 grandchildren, 98 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild. His wife Lola died in 2002. They married in 1944, when he was on furlough from the Army Air Corps.

Rigby’s funeral will be at 11 a.m. Friday in the Henry’s Fork LDS Stake Center, 1508 W 3000 N, Rexburg. Family and friends can call from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at Flamm Funeral Home in Rexburg and from 9:30 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. at the stake center. He will be buried in Rexburg Cemetery. Condolences can be sent online to flammfh.com.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.