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Deal to resolve Nez Perce Indian water rights 5-1-07

LAPWAI, Idaho (AP) - A landmark $193 million settlement to resolve water rights claims by the Nez Perce Tribe has been signed nearly three years after it was negotiated.

Over the weekend, federal, state and tribal officials signed the complex consent degree that was issued by Idaho's Fifth District Court. It will be implemented after the terms are published in the Federal Register in the next few weeks.

The Nez Perce agreed to drop most if the tribe's claims to water in the Snake River basin in exchange for about $83 million in cash, 11,000 acres of land now managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management, and salmon conservation measures, including requirements for water releases from dams to aid migrating fish.

In a statement, Nez Perce Tribal Chairwoman Rebecca A. Miles called the signing a key moment in tribal and state history because it involved water claims in an area “that our people have inhabited for thousands of years.”

In 1993, the Nez Perce filed thousands of water rights claims to try to establish minimum stream flows for migrating fish. The tribe cited a treaty it signed with the federal government in 1855, but the state fought the claims in court.

The deal settling the dispute was announced with much fanfare on May 15, 2004. At the time, then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, now the U.S. interior secretary, called the deal “one of the single most important milestones in our state's 114-year crusade to control its water.”

Congress and the state Legislature approved the settlement within a year, but it took another two years to resolve appeals from other parties, including farmers who use water for irrigation and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of southern Idaho.

Key provisions give the Nez Perce a formal role in deciding on annual releases of water from Dworshak Reservoir, and a promise by the state to send water that might otherwise have gone for irrigation down the Snake River to help migrating salmon and steelhead.
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