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Idaho, Nez Perce Tribe Reach Water Pact

by Dave Wilkins, Idaho Staff Writer
Capital Press, May 21, 2004

A long-awaited agreement to settle the Nez Perce Tribe’s claims to Snake River water was announced last week in Idaho by state, federal and tribal leaders.

U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and Nez Perce Tribe Chairman Anthony Johnson announced the deal that could resolve one of the largest water rights cases in the West.

The tentative agreement includes provisions for augmenting Snake River flows to aid salmon recovery, while preserving the ability of irrigation districts to deliver water to farmers and ranchers.

The deal will allow the Bureau of Reclamation to rent or buy up to 60,000 acre feet of Snake River water in addition to the 427,000 acre feet that it has been acquiring during good water years.

Idaho has been sorting out 180,000 claims to river water rights for nearly two decades. In 1993, the Nez Perce claimed rights to most of the water in the Snake River, including its tributaries. The proposed settlement - set to take effect next spring and last for 30 years - still must be approved by the U.S. Congress, Idaho Legislature, the tribe and the Snake River Basin Adjudication court. All parties have until March 31, 2005, to finalize the deal.

The proposed agreement will cost the federal government an estimated $193 million over 30 years.

The proposed pact will allow Idaho “to more effectively address its responsibilities for water resources management and the needs of protected fish,” Kempthorne said in a statement. “It also provides Idaho’s water users the assurance, security and flexibility they need to address the water challenges facing their businesses and communities.”

The proposed settlement was reached through a court-ordered mediation process lasting several years. State, private, tribal and federal representatives were required to abide by a confidentiality order during the negotiations.

The Nez Perce claim to instream flow rights in the Snake River has been the largest outstanding issue in the state’s adjudication of water rights in the basin.

The agreement helps protect the tribe’s treaty-based fisheries while preserving the ability of irrigation districts to deliver water to farmers and ranchers.

The deal will allow the Bureau of Reclamation to continue leasing up to 427,000 acre feet of Snake River water from the state water bank for flow augmentation, provided that the water is there.

The agreement keeps intact the “willing seller” system, a key point for irrigators.

“This keeps the existing water bank structure and the willing seller system in place,” said Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association.

Whether 427,000 acre feet is actually used for flow augmentation each year will still depend on availability and whether enough water rights holders are willing to sell.

“There’s no guarantee that there will be 427, 000 acre feet or any amount of water available to go down the river in any given year,” Semanko said.

The agreement allows BuRec to buy or rent 60,000 acre feet of natural flow rights from high-lift irrigation pumpers along the Snake River to boost flows. It would also provide for $2 million in compensation to local communities affected by the loss of the high-lift pumpers.

Under the agreement, there would be no agricultural preference given to uncontracted storage water in the state water bank. That would allow BuRec to rent uncontracted water for flow augmentation without making it available to irrigators first.

“We’ve agreed that we won’t exercise the agricultural preference on that water,” Semanko said.

Overall, the agreement is “a pretty significant achievement for water users in the state,” he said.

Other terms of the landmark agreement include:

The agreement is only the first major step in the settlement process, officials pointed out. To learn more about the deal visit the Department of Interior website at

Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho.
The Associated Press contribued to this report.
Idaho, Nez Perce Tribe Reach Water Pact
Capital Press, May 21, 2004

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