BOISE – The state Legislature has ratified a historic agreement between the Nez Perce Indian Tribe, the federal government and the state’s water users, setting water policy in Idaho for the next 30 years.
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne issued a statement immediately after the bill’s passage, thanking lawmakers for their work.
“The Legislature’s approval of these three pieces of legislation gives us the tools we need to protect Idaho’s sovereignty over its water,” Kempthorne said.
The House-passed legislation easily cleared the Senate 27-7 on Wednesday, with two Democrats and five Republicans voting against it. The agreement has already been approved by Congress. After Kempthorne signs the bill, the agreement will be sent to the tribe for final approval.
The agreement calls for the tribe to drop its claim to nearly all the water in the Snake River Basin. In exchange, it will receive annual 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.
Although the vote on the Senate was not close, the debate on the floor lasted more than 90 minutes. Sen. Skip Brandt of Kooskia led the opposition, saying the agreement was not just a slippery slope that would lead to a loss of sovereignty for the state, but that it was more like leaping off a cliff.
“Yes, this (agreement) is just dealing with the Nez Perce up on the Clearwater. But once the door is open, I can guarantee that the tribes in the rest of the state will be wanting that opportunity to flex their muscle to keep their water clean,” Brandt said.
Already, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe of southeastern Idaho has threatened to sue the state, saying the agreement steps on their aboriginal turf and that they should have been included in negotiations.
Several senators opposed to the bill said the state appeared to be folding its cards while holding a winning hand.
In 1999, water adjudication Judge Barry Wood ruled that the Nez Perce treaty did not amount to a water right for the entire Snake River. The tribe has appealed the case to the Idaho Supreme Court while negotiations continued.
“You know what, we’re in that strong position,” said Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth. “The next step is that we go the state Supreme Court – and I think we’re pretty well assured of what would happen there,” Pearce said, referring to an expected win.
But Senate President Pro Tem Robert Geddes said the agreement represents a secure agreement all sides have already said they can live with. He said the agreement, which comes after months of hard negotiating, resolves the issue for 30 years – without continuing the court battles.
“I can’t say there are no problems,” with the agreement, Geddes said. “But the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into the negotiations of this settlement have been sincere.”
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