Water Rights Claim Goes to the Presidentby Staff
Lewiston Tribune, November 21, 2004
Agreement still must be approved by Idaho Legislature and tribe
A bill to resolve one of the largest water rights disputes in the West is on its way to President Bush's desk for his signature.
The Snake River Water Rights Act of 2004 was approved by the U.S. Senate late Friday night, and omnibus appropriation bills containing funding and authorization for the $193 million agreement passed the House and Senate Saturday.
"This legislation secures the federal government's participation in the agreement and demonstrates that the U.S. Congress appreciates the importance of this matter in Idaho," said U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, Saturday.
The agreement gives the Nez Perce Tribe annual rights to 50,000 acre-feet of water in the Clearwater River and $90 million in cash and land in return for dropping claims to nearly all the water in the Snake River and its tributaries.
The agreement sets minimum stream flows in the Salmon and Clearwater river basins and works to provide up to 427,000 acre-feet of annual flow augmentation from the Upper Snake River Basin. Both the minimum flows and flow augmentation are designed to help threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.
The tribe claimed it had a water right based on the reserved fishing rights in its treaty with the federal government. The state disputed the claim, and the case is pending before the Idaho Supreme Court.
If the settlement agreement is affirmed, the state would also be eligible to receive up to $50 million from a trust fund intended to pay for restoration of salmon habitat.
The bill would protect irrigators in the Upper Snake River Basin and some loggers and landowners in the Clearwater and Salmon river basins from endangered species-based lawsuits. The agreement was announced last June.
"You can quibble about who gets what or any number of other details," said U.S. Rep. C.L. (Butch) Otter. "But at the end of the day, this gives Idaho its best chance to put to rest the kind of legal challenges that put our economy and our way of life unnecessarily at risk."
If signed by the president, the bill would have to be approved by the Idaho Legislature and the Nez Perce Tribe by the end of March.
"When this bill is signed into law, the Idaho State Legislature will have the responsibility of determining whether this agreement should be executed," U.S. Sen. LarryCraig, R-Idaho, said Friday.
Just last month, Craig and fellow Republican Sen. Mike Crapo said a hold had been put on the bill by an unidentified senator. Senate procedures allow a member to singlehandedly block a floor vote on legislation without identifying himself or herself.
At the time, Craig and Crapo agreed that there was no chance of passing the bill during this month's lame-duck session. But the hold was lifted.
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