The Nez Perce Tribe has put its lawsuit over the Lewiston Orchards Irrigation District on hold while it and other parties seek an alternate water source for the project that diverts water from critical steelhead habitat.
The three-year delay is the result of an agreement between the tribe, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that will see more water stay in Webb and Sweetwater creeks and could pave the way for irrigation water to be drawn from the lower Clearwater River. A group that includes the tribe, LOID, city of Lewiston, Nez Perce County and the Lewis Clark Valley Chamber of Commerce have been working on a plan to tap the Clearwater River for more than a year.
"I think it's a positive move. It definitely clears the plate for at least two of the parties, well all three of them, where they can concentrate more on looking for a solution without going to litigation and that is a big plus," said Jerry Klemm of the chamber.
Klemm is chairman of a collaborative group seeking a solution to a tangle of problems associated with the LOID water delivery system -- diversion of water places steelhead at risk, the reservoir sits partially on tribal land without compensation and it doesn't deliver enough water to satisfy irrigation demand. Last year they signed a memorandum of understanding that outlined a plan that would build a pumping station on the Clearwater River and transfer the old system that draws water from Craig Mountain to the tribe. An initial engineering study said it would cost $11 million to $20 million and about $481,000 to $730,000 to operate each year. But it would also end diversions from the creeks and ensure enough water for Lewiston Orchards residents to keep their lawns and pastures green during hot summer months.
The MOU was born out of a 2007 lawsuit in which the tribe challenged a biological opinion from the federal fisheries agency that said the irrigation system did not threaten steelhead. Judge B. Lynn Winmill of Boise sided with the tribe. He ordered more water to stay in the creeks but also directed parties to start seeking a long-term solution.
Last year NOAA fisheries issued a new biological opinion that left more water in the creeks. The tribe argued it was still not enough to protect fish and sued again. The agreement puts that lawsuit on hold.
Tribal chairman McCoy Oatman said the parties want a solution that satisfies all of their needs.
"Our federal and state elected officials are very supportive of this approach. We appreciate the pledge reclamation and NOAA have made in this agreement to assist these efforts and we believe significant progress can be made in the next three years."
LOID manager Barney Metz said the litigation delay is a good move in terms of the effort to find a long-term solution but the portion that dictates more water be diverted for fish could be difficult.
"We are reluctant to give up additional water that patrons are footing the bill to get, but it's part of the process and we will continue to work toward a resolution."
The agreement calls for an additional 90 acre feet of water to be used for in-stream flows. Metz said over the course of a year that might not amount to much but if it is used in midsummer, when irrigation demand is high, it could lead to further shortages.
During the next three years Lesa Stark of the Bureau of Reclamation said the parties would continue a process looking at a Clearwater pumping station as well as other alternative water sources including the Snake River and ground wells. If the Clearwater source emerges as the best alternative, as parties expect it will, a more detailed study will be conducted that could lead to a recommendation to Congress to fund the project.
"Congress would have to authorize and fund the project," she said.