Sides Delay Action on Water Rightsby Associated Press
Lewiston Tribune, November 1, 2003
Government, tribe asign agreement to postpone court dates
TWIN FALLS -- Settlement of the Nez Perce Tribe's sweeping water rights claims in the Snake River Basin may still be possible even though the state's water judge gave up hope on the negotiations last spring and there is still pending lawsuits.
The tribe, the state and the federal government have signed an agreement to delay scheduled court dates in the Nez Perce's case while talks continue. They also have agreed to a general framework for reaching a settlement, but still have significant details to work out.
A deal could accelerate resolution of the long-running effort to put more than 160,000 water rights in a priority order. That is expected to provide some certainty about future water availability in most of Idaho for farm production, fish recovery, power generation and general economic expansion.
Next week's arguments before the state Supreme Court on one aspect of the case have been canceled, and the January trial set for other aspects of the dispute has been delayed.
The tribe has claimed under an 1855 treaty virtually all the basin's water. The tribe argued the river's deterioration under the control of others has made meaningless the treaty's guarantee of access to salmon.
Four years ago, 5th District Judge Barry Wood, who then handled the adjudication, ruled the Nez Perce treaty rights did not entitle the tribe to water rights for the entire river.
Although an appeal was filed, the tribe, state and federal officials agreed to mediation. Wood's successor on the water court, 5th District Judge Roger Burdick, had set a deadline for agreement last spring, and speculated that one would not be reached when the deadline passed.
Burdick has since been appointed to the Supreme Court, and 5th District Judge John Melanson has taken over the adjudication.
The tribal claim for basin water also could be affected by negotiations between environmentalists and water users on the effects that Snake River dam operations have on endangered fish.
It is one of the last major issues in the adjudication that covers water rights in all but six of Idaho's 44 counties. It is the largest water rights adjudication in the nation's history, beginning in the mid-1980s and costing more than $60 million.
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