Tribe OKs Water Pactby Pat McCoy
Capital Press, April 1, 2005
The nine-member Nez Perce tribal executive committee has accepted the proposed settlement of the tribe's water right claims in the Snake River Basin Adjudication.
The 6-2 vote to accept came Mar. 29 after five hours of debating the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed settlement. An overflow crowd made up of interested parties attended and asked questions.
The executive committee vote was the final step for ratifying the agreement. It concluded a long odyssey for the settlement, which began last May when it was first made public after five years of closed-door negotiations ordered by the SRBA Court. Participants were limited to parties who filed SRBA claims or their official representatives.
The agreement was first ratified by Congress, which approved federal funding for implementing it. It then moved through the Idaho Legislature, where it was debated in lengthy hearings before the House Resources and Conservation Committee and the Senate State Affairs Committee before it reached either the floor of the House or the Senate. Three pieces of enabling legislation were signed into law on March 24 by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in a formal public event where the governor praised lawmakers for approving what he called landmark, historic bills.
Kempthorne hosted the signing event in a courtroom in the Statehouse Annex, Idaho's former federal courthouse, the Borah Building.
"We're in a courtroom today not as litigants, but rather taking the formal steps that will allow us to avoid litigation," Kempthorne said. "This agreement will help end the SRBA, which will be the largest general adjudication in U.S. history when it is concluded. The adjudication has spanned four governors' administrations in Idaho, and four U.S. presidential administrations. Today there are only about 20,000 water rights claims left to finish. It, and the Nez Perce Settlement, are monumental achievements."
By accepting the settlement, the Nez Perce Tribe will receive 50,000 acre feet of water decreed to the tribe for on-reservation uses, instream flows decreed on almost 200 tribal priority streams to be held by the state of Idaho, and springs claims decreed on federal land in lands ceded under the tribe's 1863 treaty with the United States. More than 11,000 acres of on-reservation Bureau of Land Management land will be transferred to the tribe in trust. There will also be $23 million for tribal water and sewer projects, $60 million for various tribal purposes including cultural preservation, and $13 million for a fish habitat trust fund.
"This was one of the biggest decisions the executive committee has ever faced," said Anthony Johnson, Nez Perce chairman. "The magnitude of deciding whether to accept the proposed settlement as a final determination of the water rights of the tribe in the Snake River Basin in Idaho or to reject the proposed settlement and continue our water right claims in litigation cannot be overstated."
Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association, said, "We're relieved to see the third leg has been added to the stool. We can now move forward with the process of dismissing and resolving forever all tribal claims in the SRBA. This puts an 11-year debate behind us. We were obviously very concerned about the tribal claims. Fighting them in the courts has cost our water users alone over $5 million. Now those claims are forever resolved and over. Our members can focus on other, equally serious water issues.
"We look forward over the next few days and weeks in making sure the agreement is fully implemented within the guidelines of the settlement," he said. "Under the agreement, 30-year biological opinions are to be completed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries by Mar. 31. Those are on target, and we look forward to seeing them," he said.
Semanko worked hard behind the scenes on behalf of the settlement, providing many educational presentations to various producer associations and extensive testimony and lobbying efforts to state legislators. He was recognized for that work by Kempthorne during the Mar. 24 signing event.
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