Crow leaders, Sen. Tester push $461 million water settlement

Associated Press

by Matthew Brown

CROW AGENCY — Crow leaders and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester say a pending $461 million water-rights settlement with the federal government could help pull the Montana tribe from poverty, by allowing more industrial and agricultural development.

President Barack Obama signed the settlement into law last month after more than a decade of negotiations, but the deal still must be ratified by the tribe's members.

Tester, a Montana Democrat, joined tribal leaders Tuesday to rally support leading up to a March 8 referendum on the deal.

"This means new jobs. It means opportunity," Tester told a large crowd at the Apsaalooke Center in Crow Agency. "With that water, with that lifeblood, you can start making things move forward in Crow Nation."

The deal would allocate to the tribe up to 300,000 acre-feet of water annually from Bighorn Lake, a government-operated reservoir along the Wyoming border, and 500,000 acre-feet annually from the Bighorn River. The federal government would spend $461 million on irrigation improvements, industrial and municipal water system upgrades and other projects.

In exchange, the tribe would waive any legal claims against the government for being denied adequate water resources in the past.

Although half the storage allocation in Bighorn Lake could not be used for irrigation or agriculture, Crow officials said the tribe's net gain of 650,000 acre-feet of water still marks a vast increase over what is now used by the tribe.

"Opportunity every now and then comes before us as the Crow nation," said tribal chairman Cedric Black Eagle. "This is one of them. We certainly cannot let it go by."

Yet support for the March referendum remains uncertain. Some within the tribe had criticized the agreement prior to its approval by Congress, saying tribal leaders settled for too little in the deal.

One of the original negotiators on the agreement, former Crow chairwoman Clara Nomee, said Tuesday she would wait to endorse the final version until examining it more closely. Nomee said she had heard concerns that the federal money in the deal comes with strings attached.

"There are people who are wondering if we would have to give it back," Nomee said.

The agreement itself makes no mention of repayment, and Crow leaders dismissed the idea as one of several false rumors making the rounds within the tribe.

Nevertheless, even concerns that lack validity could make the settlement a tough sell, said Dale Old Horn, a spokesman for the tribal government's executive branch. "It's not a slam dunk. We'll have to work hard," he said.

The agreement allows the tribe to sell or lease up to 50,000 acre-feet of water annually and to build a new hydroelectric project at Yellowtail Afterbay Dam north of Bighorn Lake. Black Eagle said preliminary work on the hydroelectric project would begin "right away."

The agreement includes a $20 million account for the tribe to pursue the hydro project and others involving coal or renewable energy.

One initiative already in the works is a coal-to-liquids plant for the reservation with a price tag topping $7 billion. Proposed by the tribe in partnership with an Australian company, the plant would consume large volumes of water as part of a process to convert coal to liquid fuels such as diesel.

The Crow have committed up to 50,000 acre-feet of water annually for the plant, although the actual amount used would initially be far less.

One acre-foot is equivalent to nearly 326,000 gallons.

The water-rights settlement was approved by the Montana Legislature in 1999.

It ran into early opposition in Congress when Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming temporarily opposed the measure. But the Republican dropped his effort to block the bill after Tester and other Montana officials convinced Barrasso it would not weaken Wyoming's influence over the region's water.