U.S. government representatives in late September informed the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation that a federal negotiation team has been assigned to help work toward a long-sought water rights settlement for region.
Before the CTUIR Board of Trustees Sept. 27, Letty Belin, counselor to the Deputy Secretary of Interior, said it was an “honor” to be before them and announced that “we have established a negotiating team” for the tribes’ water rights settlement.
Belin said that Interior’s Indian Water Rights Working Group had convened Sept. 7 in San Francisco and made the determination.
“Your settlement is ripe for a settlement and we’re ready for it,” said Belin. “Leadership is extremely impressive not just because of our work but because of your work. When I combine that with all the things that we have seen today with our own eyes and what we heard today it’s extraordinary. How that is integrated for your vision is how this settlement should be.”
In August of 2007, leaders from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, met with federal, state and county officials, along with downstream irrigators, and laid claim to about three-fourths of Umatilla River flows that originate about 15 miles east of the reservation boundary in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon.
A negotiated settlement would include on-the-ground irrigation projects, subject to federal funding, to secure a new water source for irrigators in the west end of Umatilla County, according to a story that appeared in the Confederated Umatilla Journal in September of 2007.
The water claimed by the tribes would be used primarily as in-stream flows for migrating salmon and steelhead, and to serve current and future domestic and commercial water needs on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Most of the water the tribes are claiming is already available as a result of the federal Umatilla Basin Project, which provides a bucket-for-bucket Columbia River exchange for three of four irrigation districts in the west end of Umatilla County.
The tribes' water rights claims would be contingent upon securing a new water supply for Westland Irrigation District in a partial exchange of Phase 2 for the Umatilla Basin Project and/or upstream storage.
Federal team members in late September toured the Umatilla River basin and saw first-hand the key components of the proposed tribal water rights settlement: the Columbia River pump station of Phase II of the Umatilla Basin Project, Cold Springs Reservoir, Westland Irrigation District diversion dam, McKay Reservoir, and the reservation resort and community properties.
Federal officials included Belin; Pam Williams, director of the Secretary’s Office on Indian Water Rights; Fain Gildea, deputy director, Secretary’s Office on Indian Water Rights; Duane Meacham, chair, Federal Indian Water Rights Negotiation Team; Michael Black, deputy director, Bureau of Indian Affairs (Washington, D.C.); Lorri Lee, Pacific Northwest regional director (Boise, Idaho), Bureau of Reclamation; Tim Personius, deputy director, BOR PNW Region; Bob Hamilton, engineer, BOR Pacific Northwest Region.
Tribal representatives on the tour were Les Minthorn, chairman, CTUIR Board of Trustees; Leo Stewart, vice-chairman, BOT; John Barkley, chairman, Tribal Water Commission; Joe Ely, consultant, Stetson’s Engineers; Dan Hester, tribal attorney, and Aaron Skirvin, program manager, Tribal Water Resources.
“This is a milestone in the history of the tribes,” Barkley told the federal officials. “Our diligence and perseverance for this day is attributed to an accumulation of past and current leaders and staff who felt justice would be served. We are leaving a legacy for this generation and generations to come.”
The three principal parties – CTUIR, the state of Oregon and WID – filed a joint request May 21, 2012, for the appointment of a federal negotiation team, which was supported by the Oregon U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden.
“I think you have good ingredients you put together in here. Your team has gone about this in an effective, intelligent way,” said Belin. “We don’t know how long ahead this road is, it has to go through Congress, but I’m optimistic. I can observe first hand to have a good partnership that results in a good settlement.”
Williams remarked to the board that “I had the privilege to work with many Indian water rights settlements in my career; you’re off to a good start, very thoughtful. You’ve worked with the partners very well.”
Meacham, who chaired the federal negotiation team for the Snake River Basin Adjudication involving the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, said that “I’m appreciative of the broader federal contingent group we brought today. It wasn’t very hard to convince them to come. They recognized the work you all have done to make our job easier, to say ‘yes, this is a ripe situation for a federal negotiation team’.”
“It’s almost a no-brainer to follow what you’ve done, the partnership you’ve built … the approach you’ve taken shows that you want to work with us, to get at the table and treat everyone fair at the table,” Black said.
Tour members stopped at the tribes’ Three-Mile dam facility to see fall chinook and coho salmon and steelhead make their way from the Columbia up to the headwaters of the Umatilla River, all the while surrounded by the expansive agriculture community of the lower basin.
Members of the tribes’ water rights negotiation team – Stewart, Ely and Hester – have begun a series of meetings with WID and next month with other irrigation districts to review key components of the tribal water right settlement proposal.
Eventually these parties will engage the Federal Negotiation Team and seek a settlement for authorization by Congress and subsequently appropriations for infrastructure initially estimated around $145 million dollars.
To realize “wet” water the tribes and WID are seeking a partial exchange using the Phase II system of the Umatilla Basin Project and Cold Springs Reservoir for storage, which makes available WID’s McKay Reservoir storage for the tribes to secure in the settlement.
“What we seek is a win-win situation for all stakeholders in the basin,” said Minthorn, “and for our part, secured water for future growth and future generations to come.”