LEWISTON – The Nez Perce Tribe has received approval to begin administration of its water rights, instead of that duty being performed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Last month, the tribe’s water rights administration code was approved by officials at the U.S. Department of Interior. According to a news release from the tribe, the code “provides for the Tribe’s use and protection of its water rights, including those confirmed through the Snake River Basin Adjudication.”
In 2004, the tribe signed a historic water rights agreement with the federal government and the state of Idaho. During the Snake River Basin Adjudication, a decadeslong state court process to sort out more than 180,000 water rights in the basin, the Nez Perce Tribe filed about 1,100 water right claims on the Snake and Salmon rivers. The claims, seeking to protect flows for salmon and steelhead, were based on the tribe’s reserved fishing rights in its 1855 treaty with the federal government. The claims, if granted, would have been among the oldest in the state and thus senior to other claims.
Under the agreement, the tribe gave up most of those claims in exchange for more than $90 million; 11,000 acres of land; salmon conservation measures, including 487,000 acre-feet of water from the upper Snake River to be used as flow augmentation; and fish friendly minimum flow standards in several tributaries to the Salmon and Clearwater rivers. The minimum flows are administered by the state of Idaho.
The tribe also received rights to 50,000 acre-feet of water for its own use. That is the water that will be subject to the tribe’s administration.
“As we look forward to a future in which water becomes even more valuable for all uses, this code ensures that the tribe will be responsible for making the decisions about the protection and use of its water rights,” Tribal Chairman Shannon Wheeler said. “We will be putting a team together to develop strategies, but we are confident this will be a great opportunity for the tribal membership. This large step will allow us to further diversify our revenue streams and continue development for a healthy and prosperous people.”
Wheeler said the water could be tapped by the tribe as an entity or by individual members for a variety of commercial purposes, including growing fruits, vegetables or hemp; processing food, such as making jams; or even viticulture. He said the tribe is interested in attaining greater “food sovereignty” by growing more of its own fruits and vegetables and being a regional supplier of food products. He noted fruits and vegetables sold in southeastern Washington and north-central Idaho are often trucked in from hundreds and even thousands of miles away.
The tribe submitted its water rights code to the Department of Interior in 2018. The Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee formally adopted it in December 2019.
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