BOISE – Gov. Dirk Kempthorne signed legislation ratifying a major water-rights agreement with the Nez Perce Tribe on Thursday, putting the state’s stamp of approval on a deal that will set a 30-year course for water use across most of the state.
“This agreement marks a historic landmark for all Idahoans,” said Kempthorne in front of a large crowd during a special ceremony at the historic federal courthouse across the street from the Capitol.
The $193 million agreement, already approved by Congress and signed by the president, calls for the tribe to drop its claims to nearly all the water in the Snake River and its tributaries in exchange for annual rights to 50,000 acre-feet of water in the Clearwater River, money and land.
Congress and the state also have pledged to provide tens of millions of dollars for fish habitat and other environmental improvements.
Kempthorne touted the legislation as a way to keep the state out of lengthy legal battles over water rights.
“Without it, we would have faced years of uncertain court battles and litigation that could cost untold millions to resolve,” he said. “With it, we have the certainty of an agreement crafted by Idahoans, not a verdict imposed by a judge.”
The Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee still has to approve the agreement by Thursday for it to take effect. The committee is expected to take up the issue on Tuesday, according to Heidi Gudgell, staff attorney for the tribe’s Office of Legal Counsel.
“As far as we’re concerned, the governor’s signature is just part of the process,” Gudgell said.
There has been significant dissent, and some tribal members have asked to call the issue before a full vote of the membership. But Gudgell said the decision will be made by the executive committee.
The Nez Perce Tribe’s claims to Snake River water are the largest piece of the giant Snake River Basin Adjudication, an effort to prioritize and clarify hundreds of thousands of water rights that reach into 38 of Idaho’s 44 counties. When it’s done, the process will be the largest water-rights adjudication ever completed in U.S. history.
“From a historic point of view, this is the most important issue I’ve been involved in,” said Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, one of the bill’s three House sponsors.
Before House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, asked Clark to get involved in the process last year, the Panhandle lawmaker said he knew nothing about water issues.
“The only time I think of water is when I turn the shower on in the morning,” Clark said after the signing. “It’s never been a problem for me. But the speaker told me I should get educated quickly, and that’s what I did.”
The agreement was controversial as it came through the Legislature. Committee hearings had to be held away from the Statehouse because the Capitol did not have rooms large enough to hold the crowds.
Some lawmakers opposed the agreement because they said it treaded on the rights of private property owners in northern Idaho. Others said it degraded Idaho’s sovereignty.
But supporters said that while it was not perfect, the agreement gives all parties a framework for the future.
“This puts to rest claims forever,” Kempthorne said. “This is the path forward so that we now have certainty. This allows Idaho to continue to plan its future.”
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