WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Several ongoing negotiations to resolve Indian water rights in western states appear ready for federal consideration next year and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne will use a holistic approach to these issues, including innovative cost-share formulas, expanded partnerships with federal agencies and organizational improvements for the Department’s negotiating team.
That was the gist of the message Michael Bogert, counselor to Secretary Kempthorne, delivered today to the Northwest Tribal Water Rights Conference at the University of Oregon In Eugene. Under the Bush Administration, Interior-led tribal water rights settlements have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars worth of commitments to meet the water supply and economic development needs of tribal governments.
Of the 19 tribal water rights negotiations looming on the horizon, proposed settlements in California, Montana and New Mexico appear to be ready to pursue to conclusion, Bogert said. Kempthorne and Bogert have met with numerous tribal and state leaders on these issues and the Secretary will be looking at settlements that have the support of all the parties, including the respective congressional delegations.
Kempthorne’s vision for these negotiations reflects his hands-on work as Governor of Idaho with the Nez Perce water rights settlement, said Bogert. “The Secretary believes that negotiations succeed when reasonable people sit down together, look beyond their differences to common interests and find ways to overcome the challenges they face.”
“As we assess the current landscape, proposals for tribal water settlements now exceed billions of dollars,” Bogert said. “Also, we acknowledge the conundrum of involving the federal government at early stages of discussions. We know there is a constant competition for resources: people, funds for modeling, studies, policy support, and other essential ingredients.
“Any official federal position must be coordinated with the Department of Justice and the Office of Management and Budget. These dynamics sometimes produce a scenario in which the parties come to agreement without the support or full participation of the U. S. Government and later result in a significant federal price tag.”
Kempthorne has adopted a long-standing Interior policy that the total cost of a settlement to all parties should not exceed the value of existing claims as calculated by the federal government, Bogert said. “Further, we know that federal contributions should not exceed the calculated legal exposure as well as costs related to federal trust and programmatic responsibilities.”
The Secretary also believes that non-federal cost-share should be proportionate to the benefits received by the non-federal parties, unless a different cost ratio is justified. “We understand that this policy has raised concern by some in Indian Country and the States,” Bogert said. “But we also know that it has brought a greater sense of financial partnership and ownership of the structure of these agreements, while also providing flexibility on a case-by-case basis.” Interior will also consider non-monetary cost-share contributions, such as land transfers, habitat management and facility operations, noting that these were key ingredients to the success of the Nez Perce agreement.
Interior will examine the opportunity for greater partnership with other federal agencies, which have similar working relationships with tribal governments, to address needs or other concerns that would be satisfied by these water rights settlements. “Our sister agencies – the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services – come immediately to mind,” Bogert said.
Kempthorne also is looking into permanently integrating the Secretary’s Indian Water Rights Office into the structure of the Department,” Bogert explained. “This approach will avoid more bureaucracy and instead offer a more efficient structure to resolve these issues. “Further, some of our senior negotiators in the Indian Water Rights Office are already based in the West in order to provide a more visible presence on day-to-day management of these negotiations.”
“We will look to all of the available resources in order to meet the needs of our partners in these negotiations, with the understanding that we will not dismiss any creative and innovative approaches to resolving settlement discussions,” said Bogert. “These settlements must meet the federal government’s responsibility to our tribal partners, our water rights stakeholders, and the U.S. taxpayers.”
The Secretary believes that a successful outcome to these negotiations will mean a re-affirmation of tribal and state sovereignty, Bogert said. “Settlement will bring peace between fellow neighbors and certainty to the relationships among governments as well as between the governments and the governed. These agreements will provide economic development and thus opportunity for all.”
The full text of Counselor Michael Bogert’s remarks are online at the following site: http://www.doi.gov/secretary/speeches/061027.html