Blackfeet Tribe water rights bill introduced

The Great Falls Tribune

by Karl Puckett

The Blackfeet Tribe would get control of millions of acre-feet of water and $591 million in federal funding to develop it under a water rights bill introduced Thursday in the U.S. Senate.

Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, both of Montana, are sponsoring the Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act, which is the result of more than 20 years of on-again, off-again negotiations.

“Now it’s time for Congress to honor this agreement by setting it in law,” Tester said.

The Blackfeet Indian Reservation has 10,000 enrolled members. Its hub is Browning.

Since it was established in 1855, the Blackfeet Tribe has received little benefit from mountain- fed river drainages that cross reservation lands, even as those waters were used and developed historically by downstream users. “Now, it is finally the Blackfeet Tribe’s turn,” said Roger Running Crane, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council.
If the settlement is approved, the tribe will gain control of 98 percent of the water on the reser-vation — in addition to the federal allocation of $591 million to build drinking water systems, irrigation systems and water storage. Tribal and state officials described the proposed legislation as a milestone.

“Up until this time, the tribe has not benefitted from its water resources through lack of infra-structure,” said Jeanne Whiteing, the tribe’s water rights attorney.

A 1908 U.S. Supreme Court decision that became known as the Winters Doctrine gave all tribes implied, or “reserved,” water rights when reservations were created.

More than a century later, negotiations to quantify the water tribes are owed are continuing. Talks can be contentious because outcomes impact nonreservation residents, who historically have benefitted from the water more than the tribes.

“The tribe has watched while development has occurred off the reservation,” Running Crane said of the Blackfeet’s situation.

Still, the tribe has no plans to cut off downstream users.

“We’re here to share,” he said.

If approved, the Blackfeet settlement will significantly contribute to the development of the reservation’s economy, he said.

“Understand, water is priceless at this time,” Running Crane said. “I don’t think anybody could put a price on water.”

Susan Cottingham, program manager for the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, which negotiates on behalf of state residents in water rights negotiations, said off-reservation interests will benefit from the settlement.

“We’re thrilled,” she said, adding that the proposed federal legislation is a “huge” step in the process.

In the negotiations, the state works to protect the interests of non-Native Americans who rely on the same water to which the tribes have claim.

In the case of the Blackfeet compact, farmers in the Pondera County Canal Reservoir worried about a potential loss in water from Birch Creek, which they use to irrigate 80,000 acres of valu-able cropland, including those that grow grain sold to Anheuser-Busch.

But under the proposed settlement they would be protected, Cottingham said. The Four Horns Reservoir would be improved and the water from that facility will be piped to Birch Creek to replace what the Pondera County Canal and reservoir loses.

“The idea is to keep the Pondera Company whole,” Cottingham said.

The bill also asks that $125 million be earmarked to rehabilitate the Blackfeet Irrigation Project.

Another $93.2 million would be allocated annually between 2011 and 2015 for land and water development on the reservation.

In addition, the settlement would resolve all claims to water rights in six drainages and give the tribe the ability to use, lease, contract or exchange water on tribal lands.

“This is an historic moment for the Blackfeet tribe and for the Montanans who call these com-munities home,” Baucus said.

If Congress approves the legislation, the settlement next would go to the Montana Water Court and also face a referendum of voters on the reservation.

The Montana Legislature already approved the deal, with state lawmakers agreeing to contribute $35 million to the allocation.

Congress also is considering legislation previously introduced by the state’s congressional dele-gation to settle water rights on the Crow Reservation. The Crow would be allocated $550 million for development under that bill.

To date, the Northern Cheyenne and Rocky Boy’s reservations are the only two in the state to receive final approval of water rights settlements from the tribes, state and Congress.