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Legislature Must Decide its Position on
Water Agreement Involving Nez Perce Tribe

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, January 6, 2005

The Idaho Legislature must decide by March 31 whether it will join Congress and President George Bush in support of an agreement that will settle for all time the claims of Idaho's Nez Perce Tribe to water in the Snake River Basin.

The $193 million deal would provide benefits for endangered salmon; legal cover for Idaho water users and timberland owners; and cash, water and land for the tribe. It would settle the claims the tribe makes to all of the flows in the Snake River and its tributaries based on its 1855 treaty with the United States. That treaty guaranteed the tribe the right to fish for salmon and other fish. They base their water claims on those rights.

When Idaho began its review of all water rights in the Snake River Basin in 1987, the tribe was forced to assert its claims or give them up. Years of negotiation and a lower court decision in favor of the state left the issue unresolved until 2004 when the tribe, the state, irrigators and the federal government reached a settlement.

The tribe would give up the claims to all but 50,000 acre feet of water and access to springs and fountains on federal lands in north central Idaho under the settlement. It also would get a package of money and land.

Congress approved the agreement in November and President Bush signed it in December.

The Legislature must make changes in state water rules that will all but guarantee that 427,000 acre feet of water is available every year from southern Idaho to aid salmon migration. It also must authorize the federal government to annually lease or buy up to another 60,000 acre feet of water from farmers, which can be used to augment flows for salmon.

The legislation also will establish minimum stream flows on the Salmon and Clearwater rivers and tributaries to aid salmon spawning and migration. These state-controlled instream-flow rights will ensure that many places where salmon spawn that are currently dried up or too shallow will have enough water for the fish.

A series of logging rules designed to protect salmon and steelhead also must be adapted.

A similar program is under development for ranch lands for salmon streams that run through private property. Ranchers who opt in get protection from the Endangered Species Act.

The Idaho Legislature and the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee must approve the agreement by March 31.

What does the Nez Perce water deal provide?

For the Nez Perce

For salmon and steelhead

For the state of Idaho For water users For local governments

For the federal government

What's next?

President Bush must sign the omnibus budget bill that includes the Nez Perce Agreement. Then the Idaho Legislature and the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee must approve the agreement by March 31, 2005.

Also by that date, the state has to identify and negotiate minimum stream flows in the Upper Salmon River Valley, and negotiate the framework of a salmon protection plan for the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi basins in eastern Idaho.

The Bureau of Reclamation must finish consulting with federal fisheries agencies as required under the Endangered Species Act by March 31, 2005. But if the rules that come out of this public process exceed the demands for Idaho water outlined in the agreement, the deal can be negated.

Link to read a summary of the agreement

Rocky Barker
Legislature Must Decide its Position on Water Agreement Involving Nez Perce Tribe
The Idaho Statesman, January 6, 2005

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