Crow tribal members vote to approve water settlement act

Billings Gazette

by Susan Olp

Crow tribal members voted to ratify the Crow Water Settlement Act of 2010 in balloting Saturday.

According to unofficial results released Sunday morning by the office of Crow Tribal Chairman Cedric Black Eagle, the measure passed easily in a 2,347-917 vote, a 72 percent majority. In a news release, tribal officials said the Crow Election Commission will certify the vote count in 48 hours.

Enrolled members of the tribe were asked to ratify the water settlement act, which Congress passed in November and President Barack Obama signed on Dec. 8. Polling places across six districts of the Crow Reservation were open for voting from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday.

The act includes the 1999 water rights compact between the tribe and the state of Montana.

Last week, some tribal members petitioned Crow Tribal Court for a temporary restraining order against the vote, but a judge denied the motion.

The act provides a quantified water right of 650,000 acre-feet per year from natural flow and storage with a priority date of 1868.

The settlement also brings the tribe $460 million to rehabilitate the Crow Irrigation Project and design and construct a municipal, rural and industrial water system on the reservation. The bill also gives the tribe the exclusive right to develop hydropower at the Yellowtail Afterbay Dam.

Crow officials spent the past couple of months holding meetings to explain to tribal members why it's in their best interests to ratify the act. Tribal executives also brought in high-level speakers to endorse its passage, including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester; Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk, of the Department of Interior; and Michael Connor, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner.

Proponents said that with a turn in the political tides, the tribe would likely never be offered a better deal than the one members voted on Saturday. Tribal officials also said they believe the settlement bill is the best bet to help the tribe to get on its feet economically.

Black Eagle, who spent more than 12 years working on the compact and the water settlement act, said that rights of allottees would be well-protected.

Opponents also held meetings to share their concerns about the water settlement act and water compact. They maintained that the legislation would rob allottees of their water rights and not compensate them.

They urged tribal members to deny ratification and reopen the negotiating process.

The Crow Reservation contains an estimated 2.3 million acres, and tribal enrollment is about 11,500.