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Kempthorne carries through on water rights promise

Part two

WASHINGTON – The Arizona Water Rights Settlement Acts of 2004 reached the Gila River Indian Community and Tohono O’odham Nation in 2007, with Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne’s December signoff.

The tribes received access to assured water allocations, along with the financial wherewithal to develop their land and water resources and expand their economies.

The legislation that bears President Bush’s signature was the product of an effort that spanned three decades by tribes, cities, farmers and the federal government, according to a BIA release that singled out Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., as “the constant guardian who shepherded the agreement through the Congress.”

In August, Kempthorne praised the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians Settlement Act, signed into law July 31 by President Bush after arduous negotiations, principally backed in the House of Representatives by Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif.

Chairman Robert Salgado Sr. said the president’s signature honored the Soboba people. “It’s been a very long negotiation, and we thank our former tribal chairmen and council members who fought so hard for this, leaving us to merely dot the i’s and cross the t’s.”

He added, “This settlement not only corrects a historic wrong that drastically depleted the tribe’s surface and groundwater supplies, but also provides a future roadmap for sustainable water management in the over-drafted San Jacinto River basin.”

The key to the agreement, which ended decades of litigation, was the tribe’s forbearance from use of some water rights over 50 years, a decision worth $58 million in monetary value, boosting the settlement’s non-federal contributions to more than $80 million. “That’s about four times the federal cost share of $21 million,” Kempthorne said. “By agreeing to gradually phase in increased water use over the next half-century, the Soboba have provided the Eastern Municipal Water District and the Lake Hemet Municipal Water District the time to develop and implement a groundwater management plan to cure the current overdraft in the San Jacinto Basin.”

Then, in September, Kempthorne joined Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; Chairman Mervin Wright Jr. of the Pyramid Lake Paiute; and other state, local and federal officeholders from California and Nevada for a ceremonial signing of the Truckee River Operating Agreement. The Truckee is the only river system supplying water to Pyramid Lake and the fast-growing high desert cities of Reno and Sparks, Nev. Pursuant to a 1990 law sponsored by Reid, the operating agreement enforces efficient coordination of water storage, release and exchange operations at the Truckee reservoirs.

“All unappropriated water goes to the tribe – up to 400,000 acre-feet per year,” stated an Interior release. The agreement also provides storage space in the reservoirs for Reno and Sparks, increasing their supplies against municipal drought; increases flow releases for fishery and water quality purposes; and raises reservoir levels for recreational use.

On Oct. 10, Bush signed into law another bill Kyl has carried, again with the active backing of multiple Arizona parties, including the White Mountain Apache Tribe. The Interior secretary will authorize an interest-free $9.8 million loan to the tribe, then enter a cooperative agreement with the White Mountain Apache to plan, engineer and design a new water system to supply its drinking water – one piece of a larger on-reservation dam and reservoir known as the Miner Flat Project.

The tribe will conduct its rural water system project under the auspices of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. The loan will be repaid over 25 years from a Lower Colorado River Basin Development Fund, housed in the Treasury Department and generated by congressional appropriations and the revenue from water system operations.

Finally, in October, Kempthorne joined representatives from three tribes, two states, numerous cities and Congress to celebrate significant progress on the Animas-La Plata Project. Ridges Basin Dam near Durango, Colo., will supply the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute, the Navajo Nation, the state of Colorado and three other parties, comprising some 120,000 households, with water from Lake Nighthorse, named for former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Northern Cheyenne. The lake won’t fill until spring 2009, and Kempthorne said water won’t flow to the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation until 2012.

But there was no masking the elation readily expressed by Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., among others. Kempthorne himself got into the spirit of the occasion: “You have navigated the shoals of history to now find yourselves on the peaceful waters of partnership,” he told the project participants.

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