TIM FOUGHT Associated Press Writer
EUGENE, Ore. With two Western water rights agreements already in hand, the Bush administration sees an opportunity to resolve more tribal claims within the next year, an aide to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said Friday. Negotiations over water disputes in New Mexico, Montana and California involving 11 tribes, bands or pueblos are nearing fruition, said Michael Bogert, counselor to Kempthorne. The talks could lead to agreements resulting in federal legislation such as a 2004 agreement involving the Nez Perce of Idaho and the Gila River Indian Community of Arizona, Bogert said at a conference on tribal water rights at the University of Oregon School of Law. Tribal claims represent some of the thorniest, most persistent disputes among Western water fights. Sometimes, the prospect of decades in court prompts the parties to compromise, giving up some part of their claims to gain certainty about future supplies for farming, municipal growth and tribal economic development. Settlements generally require not only approval of tribal and state officials, but also federal legislation, which can provide money that allows tribes to develop the water guaranteed by an agreement or, as in the case of the Gila agreement, reduce a portion of the local debt to the federal government for a water project. After Kempthorne became Interior secretary, he hired Bogert, who was his legal adviser as governor of Idaho during negotiatons over the Nez Perce settlement, one of the largest ever in the West. It involved the tribe’s giving up claims to most Snake River Basin water in exchange for cash, land, environmental improvements and a smaller portion of water. Because of his experience as governor, Kempthorne supports “local, on-the-ground solutions ... he is not a fan of top-down, dictated outcomes from the federal government,” Bogert said. He said the negotiations that appear ripest are among a total of 19 “looming on the horizon” in the West. Some of the negotiations involve multiple tribes or tribal units. All, he said, are in various stages of progress. Bogert and aides said the bargaining with the best prospects for federal action are in:
California, involving the Soboda Band of Luiseno Indians, where Bogert said a settlement has been reached.
New Mexico, with three sets of negotiations, one involving the Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso and Tesuque pueblos; a second with the Taos Pueblo; and a third with the Navajo-San Juan.
Montana, with three sets of negotiations, one involving the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine of Fort Belknap, and two more with the Crow and Blackfeet tribes.
Notably absent from his list was the Klamath water dispute in Southern Oregon on the California border, which gained national attention five years ago when irrigation water was shut off for much of a farming season to preserve habitat for fish. Bogert said the Interior Department is optimistic about prospects for progress in the Klamath dispute, which involves tribes, farmers, fishermen, threatened and endangered fish, and a system of hydroelectic dams currently up for relicensing by the federal government. He said the intention of Govs. Ted Kulongoski of Oregon and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California to hold what they’ve called a summit meeting about the Klamath dispute “is indicative of the moment that we have at hand.”