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Nez Perce Sign Water Rights Deal

by Associated Press
Spokesman Review, May 2, 2007

Tribe drops claims in exchange for funds, land, fish protection

LAPWAI, Idaho - A landmark $193 million-dollar water rights settlement to resolve claims by the Nez Perce Tribe in North Idaho has been signed nearly three years after it was negotiated.

Federal, state and tribal officials signed the complex consent decree that was issued by Idaho's 5th District Court over the weekend, and it will be implemented after the terms are published in the Federal Register, probably in about three weeks, the Lewiston Tribune reported Tuesday.

The Nez Perce agreed to drop most of their claims to water in the Snake River basin in exchange for about $83 million, 11,000 acres of land now managed by the Bureau of Land Management and salmon conservation measures, including requirements for water releases from dams to aid migrating fish.

"The entire process was fraught with deep emotion for the Nez Perce people as we came to grips with the magnitude of the decision to try and settle our claim to the water in that area that our people have inhabited for thousands of years," Tribal Chairwoman Rebecca A. Miles said in a prepared release.

"This is not a moment we as a people are necessarily going to celebrate, but we do believe this is an important moment in the history of the Nez Perce Tribe and the state of Idaho," she said.

The agreement resulted from state efforts to resolve more than 150,000 water right claims in the Snake River basin.

In 1993, based on a treaty signed with the federal government in 1855, the Nez Perce filed thousands of water rights claims to try to establish minimum stream flows for migrating fish. The state prevailed in the first round in court, but the tribe appealed and a settlement was reached as the case was pending before the Idaho Supreme Court.

The deal was announced with much fanfare on May 15, 2004, at a news conference that included former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who later succeeded her in the federal post.

Congress approved the settlement later that year, and the state Legislature followed suit in early 2005, but it took another two years to resolve appeals and objections from a wide range of parties.

Many farmers in Idaho and Lewis counties complained that north-central Idaho agriculture was being sacrificed to save southern Idaho irrigators. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of southern Idaho withdrew their objections in October 2005 only after being assured that they would be consulted on any changes in minimum streamflows.

Key provisions give the Nez Perce a formal role in deciding on annual releases of water from Dworshak Reservoir, and the tribe also got the right to operate the Kooskia National Fish Hatchery and become more involved in management of the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery.

In other provisions:

Associated Press
Nez Perce Sign Water Rights Deal
Spokesman Review, May 2, 2007

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