Bill would boost water settlement with Crow tribe

The Associated Press

by Mathew Daly

WASHINGTON – The Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Thursday approved a bill calling for a half-billion-dollar water rights settlement for Montana's Crow Indians.

The voice vote sends the bill to the Senate floor, where Montana Sen. Jon Tester said he is optimistic about passage.

"You never say anything's for sure, but coming out of committee with a unanimous vote is a good sign," said Tester, a Democrat.

The bill would give the Crow guaranteed rights to large volumes of water for their arid, rural reservation – plus $527 million for drinking water and irrigation upgrades, industrial projects and other programs.

"Quite frankly, it's going to be a good opportunity to really empower the Crow folks and help (alleviate) some of their economic problems and unemployment problems," Tester said.

The settlement is one of several pending in Congress to resolve long-outstanding Indian water claims in the West. Some, including the Crow's, date back to treaties signed in the 1800s.

Courts have ruled the federal government must ensure tribes have access to water as a basic necessity. But since the government also must pick up water improvement costs that collectively add up to billions of dollars, many of the settlements have stalled through multiple administrations.

The Crow compact had faced opposition from Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., but he dropped his dispute after Tester convinced him that the bill would not weaken Wyoming's influence over the region's scarce water supplies.

The Crow's water would be drawn from the Bighorn River and Bighorn Lake, which stretch from Wyoming downstream into neighboring Montana.