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Water Rights Settlement Draws a Fight

by Jodi Walker
Lewiston Tribune, August 6, 2004

Opponents say agreement severely affects land owners

The Snake River Basin Adjudication settlement will only hurt the residents of north central Idaho.

That is the message John Schurbon and Jim Chmelik left with the Idaho County Commission earlier this week in their first stop on a whirlwind tour to try to get local boards to adopt a resolution opposing the water rights settlement.

"We are just trying to get to any organization in the area and make them aware of it," Chmelik said in a recent interview.

Schurbon, who serves as the mayor of Kooskia and chairman of the North Central Idaho Jurisdiction Alliance, has been studying the settlement document since its release in May.

"It took me a while to sort through all the trees that were hiding in the forest," he said. "If you really dig into this thing, it's not just a bad idea for this area; it's a bad idea for Idaho."

Schurbon drafted a resolution to present to the Kooskia City Council and that draft document is being presented to other commissions and boards.

The draft document simply says since the court ruled against the Nez Perce Tribe's claims of water rights and since the mediation process was held without public input over five years and is resulting in a huge financial loss to the taxpayers, the agreement should be opposed.

"There are just a lot of things wrong with this thing," Schurbon said. "This is just a bad thing for Idaho."

The Idaho County Commission agreed to draft a resolution, and the Kooskia City Council will take it up at its next meeting. Other boards, chambers and public groups will be addressed in the coming weeks, Chmelik said.

Schurbon said the agreement gives too much control of Idaho's water to the federal government. He said the regulations of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act would severely affect private landowners. He said establishing minimum flows leaves the door open for litigation by environmental groups.

"This does not preserve our sovereignty as far as water control," he said.

Schurbon said the loss of 11,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management property to the Nez Perce Tribe is disconcerting, but the counties will only lose payment in lieu of taxes, not a huge hit to most counties. The real hit, he said, will be with the $50 million the tribe is getting to purchase land.

"That is $50 million that can be taken off the tax rolls," he said. "That hurts the counties badly."

Schurbon said Chmelik called him after reading letters Schurbon had written in local papers opposing the document.

"Jim wanted to know more about it," Schurbon said.

Chmelik, who is running for the District 3 seat on the Idaho County Commission, said he is concerned about the issue no matter his political aspirations.

"Unfortunately whatever I do, it is going to be perceived as political," he said. "This is an issue I am very concerned about, whether I was running or not, I would be concerned."

Chmelik said a major concern for him is any well drilled after the settlement will be junior to the Tribe's water claims.

"They can go in and cap your well," he said. He, only half-jokingly, said he is considering drilling an extra well and capping it in case his children need a well in the future.

Chmelik said the tribe's claims include concern for the fish.

"We have had record steelhead returns and record salmon returns," he said. "The things we have done in the past are working. What is wrong with the fish the way we have been protecting them?"

Schurbon is encouraging a letter writing campaign by citizens. While commissions and boards can oppose it, it is the people who can get to the federal legislators and sway their opinions.

"We want people to write as many letters as they can," he said, noting that the congressional post office in Washington, D.C., is still tied up after the anthrax incident and using the congressional delegate's local addresses will be faster.

Schurbon said he too is concerned about the agreement as a citizen, although he is chairman of the alliance. The alliance is a group of 23 governmental entities opposing the Nez Perce Tribe's claims of jurisdiction over non-Indian residents and property within the designated area of the treaty of 1963.

The alliance decided at its July meeting to not get involved in opposing the agreement.

"We are leaving it up to the cities and counties to do what they would," he said. "Although I am kind of pushing them along a little bit."

The Snake River Basin Adjudication settlement can be accessed through the Department of Interior Web site at

Jodi Walker
Water Rights Settlement Draws a Fight
Lewiston Tribune, August 6, 2004

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