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Commentaries and editorials

Tribe, Farmers, Idaho make Historic Water Deal

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, May 16, 2004

'One of the single most important milestones
in our state's 114-year crusade to control its water'

Idaho's Nez Perce Tribe has struck a deal with the state of Idaho, the federal government and irrigators that would provide wide-ranging benefits for endangered salmon, legal cover for Idaho water users, and cash, water and land for the tribe.

The $193 million deal negotiated over the past five years was unveiled Saturday in a ceremony at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival site in Boise. If approved, the deal crosses the final hurdle for completing a 17-year review of water rights in the Snake River Basin in Idaho that has cost more than $40 million and examined more than 180,000 claims.

The fate of the historic deal remains uncertain. It must be approved by Congress, the president, the Idaho Legislature and the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee by March 31, 2005.

The agreement also depends on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation getting approval from fisheries agencies for programs to help salmon. Idaho also has a big job ahead in identifying and negotiating minimum-stream flows in the Upper Salmon River Valley and negotiating a salmon protection plan for the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi river basins all by March 2005.

"This is just the the first step in what will be a long journey," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said. "We will need to continue to work together, collaboratively and with creativity, as we draft the important legal documents that will implement our vision."

Failure would result in a long and costly legal fight that could threaten the state's economy and keep all sides in limbo on a variety of water, salmon and endangered species issues.

"We now need help from others," said Anthony Johnson, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. "We need the support of our neighbors, non-Indian and Indian, throughout Idaho. We need the support of our fellow tribes and other neighbors in Oregon, Washington and Montana."

"This is one of the single most important milestones in our state's 114-year crusade to control its water," Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said.

The agreement

Under the terms of the deal, the Nez Perce Tribe will drop all its claims to the water in the Snake River Basin, based on the right to fish on the lands it ceded to the federal government in an 1855 treaty with the United States.

In exchange, the federal government and the state made commitments to ensure that at least 427,000 acre-feet of water from southern Idaho are available annually to increase flows for salmon and steelhead. The federal government and the state also made commitments to protect stream flows and to restore fish habitat in the Salmon and Clearwater rivers and their tributaries.

The tribe is to receive $90 million for a variety of projects; take over management of the Kooskia federal hatchery on the Clearwater River; and get $7 million worth of federal land within its 88,300-acre reservation in north-central Idaho. The agreement also recognizes the tribal claim to 50,000 acre-feet of water for use on the reservation, which won't dry up other users.

However, some crop lands could dry up under this plan, which provides $11 million for the federal government to purchase the rights to 60,000 acre-feet of water currently diverted from the river between Buhl and Murphy. The farmers who pump water out of the Snake River and irrigate lands on the high plateaus in the area could dry up tens of thousands of acres. (bluefish adds: An acre of irrigated farm land typically requires 3 acre-feet of water. Also of interest is Power from River Flow)

Counties would get a total of $2 million in a fund to make up for the economic impacts of drying up farms.

In the Salmon and Clearwater basins, timberland owners and farmers who change their practices to help endangered fish can sign up to get protection from prosecution under the Endangered Species Act.

More hurdles

The fishermen, environmentalists and fishing-related businesses who have partnered with the Nez Perce in their fight to save salmon have a chance to kill the deal by challenging Bureau of Reclamation dam operations that need approval in Congress. Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, which represents those interests, said the group was reserving judgment until talking to the tribe and learning all the details. But he said the amount of water proposed for increasing flows in the river falls short by more than a third.

"The scientific verdict is that with the four lower Snake River dams in place, salmon need a great deal of water from Idaho to assure recovery," Ford said.

Idaho Power Co. had long been a major party to the negotiations but later pulled out. Yet the company remains a key player because any water that is made available to increase flows from the Snake River in southern Idaho must go through Brownlee Reservoir. How and when Idaho Power releases this water is critical for migrating salmon.

A key issue is the temperature of the water that is released. Federal officials say fall chinook benefit when warmer water is released early in the summer and when cooler water is released later. They are in negotiations with Idaho Power seeking a solution.

"We would much prefer to resolve the Idaho Power issues at the same time since they are interrelated," said Robert Lohn, National Marine Fisheries Service Northwest director.

Idaho Power pulled out of the talks because it considered the process for relicensing its Hells Canyon dams a more proper venue for addressing the flow issues, said John Prescott, Idaho Power vice president for generation. Other interested parties, including Oregon, couldn't take part in the talks because they weren't part of the water rights case.

"We are continuing our discussions on the issues Bob Lohn talked about but we are talking about them in the context of relicensing," Prescott said.


Rocky Barker
Tribe, Farmers, Idaho make Historic Water Deal
The Idaho Statesman, May 16, 2004

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