BOISE – The Nez Perce Tribe has agreed to give up its claims to most of the water in the Snake River Basin under a multimillion-dollar agreement with the state and federal governments.
The 6-2 vote by the tribe’s executive committee came Tuesday afternoon after a meeting in which tribal members spoke out both for and against the plan. The agreement has already been approved by the state and federal governments, and the tribe’s ratification was the last step needed for the plan to take effect.
“The magnitude of deciding whether to accept the proposed settlement and continue our water right claims in litigation cannot be overstated,” Chairman Anthony Johnson said in a prepared statement. “We have done our homework and feel we have made an informed decision that best protects the interests of the people of our sovereign nation and the tribe’s sovereignty. This is not a decision that was made lightly or in ignorance by any member.”
Roughly 60 people packed into the meeting room on Tuesday, said tribal attorney Julie Kane, and many of them shared their opinions about the agreement. The meeting was closed to reporters and nontribal members.
Those who attended spoke passionately about the agreement, tribal attorney Heidi Gudgel said, with the majority speaking against it.
Under the agreement – perhaps one of the largest such water deals in the West – the Nez Perce will give up their claim to much of the water in the Snake River Basin in exchange for cash, land, environmental improvements and some water.
The agreement grants the tribe rights to 50,000 acre-feet of water in the Clearwater River, plus $80 million in cash and land and a pledge from the state and federal governments to provide tens of millions of dollars for fish habitat and other environmental improvements.
The agreement will 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.
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne called Johnson to thank him after the vote.
“This was the final step in a long journey,” the governor said in a prepared statement. “Think about the significance of this agreement, which … for decades to come will provide certainty and predictability for all of us, while preserving state water rights. … Now we know we can begin implementing the to-do list and the terms of the historic agreement.”
Hundreds of groups and organizations weighed in on the matter. Proponents of the agreement have said that while the agreement was not perfect, it was the best way to avoid greater risks for all parties.
Opponents attacked the plan on several grounds, saying it would reduce the property rights of nontribal members living on the reservation or that it would cause more litigation. Both tribal and nontribal members said their group was giving up too much and would likely win if only the matter could continue on in court.
The debate made odd enemies and allies, with farmers, ranchers, food and fish producers, anglers and outdoorsmen, bankers and timber workers, environmentalists and federal and state agencies landing all across the spectrum of opinions.
Lawmakers lauded the tribe’s decision.
“I think it’s great,” said Idaho Republican House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, adding that the vote was by no means a sure thing. “Yesterday, it was kind of in flux because they were having a feud with BPA (Bonneville Power Administration). But (BPA Administrator) Steve Wright spent yesterday morning with the tribes,” and they worked out their differences.
The tribe would not release which way each of the nine committee members voted, except to say that as chairman, Johnson did not vote.
“Unlike the uncertainty involved in litigating such water right claims, the Nez Perce Tribe, by agreeing to the terms of the proposed settlement, was able to have a voice in the decision-making involved in the final determination of our water right claims,” Johnson said.
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