Agreement Could Set Water Rightsby CBB Staff
Another chunk of the Snake River Basin Adjudication was settled last week with an agreement among parties on water rights in six Idaho rivers federally designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers and in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
Parties to the agreement which affects 444 river miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers in central Idaho include the state of Idaho, the cities of Salmon and Challis, Idaho Power Company and environmentalists, as well as irrigation and mining interests, according to the Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.
The agreement was filed with the Snake River Basin Adjudication Court last week and still must be approved by the court before becoming law. While the agreement was a compromise, most parties agree it was an acceptable outcome to a four-year court battle. "I believe the settlement announced today will avoid a scenario where the courts decide what is best for Idaho while accommodating the future economic needs of the region," said Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.
The Idaho Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the United States was entitled to water rights for the Main Salmon, Middle Fork of the Salmon, Rapid, Selway, Lochsa and Middle Fork of the Clearwater rivers, as well as for the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. However, the court ruled that the United States was entitled to only the minimum amount of water needed to fulfill the purposes for Wild and Scenic Rivers and for the HCNRA.
"Since Congress created an express federal reserved water right for Wild and Scenic Rivers and the HCNRA, the only question was how much water the United States would receive," Wasden said. "Through good faith negotiations with the United States, Idaho was able to ensure that all existing water rights as of the date of the agreement were preserved and that additional water will be available for future development in the Salmon and Clearwater Basins."
He added that further litigation could have affected up to a thousand junior water right claims and future water development in the river basins.
Wasden said that the HCNRA Act did not create a reserved water right on the Main Snake River, but instead reserved water rights are limited to tributary streams and lakes within the HCNRA.
Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, one of two environmental organizations that signed the agreement (the other is the Wilderness Society), said the agreement isn't perfect, but it does offer protections for Idaho's rivers.
"While this agreement is not perfect, the settlement does accomplish significant protections for some of Idaho's most magnificent rivers, for river recreation, and the salmon, steelhead and other native species that call these watersheds home," Sedivy said. "In protecting these six great rivers for our children and grandchildren we have also protected the human, animal and plant communities that depend on them."
Idaho Rivers United said the agreement, effectively prohibits the construction of major new water storage facilities (dams) in the adjudicated river basins. It also prevents out-of-basin transfers of water from the rivers; locks in minimum stream flows for each of the rivers; protects high water flows in each of the streams; and requires the state of Idaho to actively protect the Wild & Scenic water right.
"This settlement may be historic, and perhaps precedent-setting for other wild rivers across America," said Tom Stuart, board member of Idaho Rivers United. "I think we've done a good job protecting the Wild & Scenic Rivers in Idaho's heartland as 'crown jewels' for all Americans."
Another piece of the Snake River Basin Adjudication was agreed to in May. That was a $193 million framework agreement signed by the Nez Perce Tribe, the state of Idaho and the federal government in May. The agreement would resolve many of the longstanding water issues of the Snake River Adjudication. The Nez Perce Tribe initially challenged Snake River water rights in 1993. Idaho's Congressional delegation introduced bills in the Senate and House in late July, just before the congressional summer recess, that would move the framework agreement forward. Approvals are still needed from the Nez Perce Executive Committee, the Idaho Legislature, Congress and President George W. Bush by March 31, 2005, before it goes back to the adjudication court for a final sign off.
Office of Gov. Dirk Kempthorne: www2.state.id.us/gov/index.htm
Idaho Rivers United: www.idahorivers.org
Office of Attorney General Lawrence Wasden: www2.state.id.us/ag
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