Water-rights bill gets tribal, federal support

Great Falls Tribune

by Elizabeth Bewley

WASHINGTON — After nearly two decades of contentious negotiations on water rights on Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation, government and tribal officials voiced support for a proposed water-rights bill at a U.S. Senate hearing Thursday.

If the bill is passed, the Blackfeet Tribe would gain control of 98 percent of the water on the reservation, as well as $591 million in federal funds to build drinking water systems, irrigation systems and water storage.

The 1.5 million-acre reservation is home to approximately half of the 16,000 enrolled tribal members. “This is an important piece of legislation because water is the foundation of life, particularly in rural communities,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who led Thursday’s hearing.

“Given the historical waterrights issues on the reservation, the Blackfeet Water Rights Compact is truly a milestone achievement,” said Shannon Augare, a Blackfeet Tribal Council member. Despite a 1908 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave tribes implied rights to water sources on reservations, the Blackfeet Tribe historically has had little control of the river drainages that cross its land. The tribe also has not been compensated for down stream use of the water.

But as the tribe has pushed for water rights, people living off the reservation have argued that they depend on the same water for plumbing, drinking water and field irrigation.

Provisions in the proposed bill aim to ensure water access for nonIndians who rely on water that passes through the reservation. Farmers who rely on water from Birch Creek, which crosses the southern edge of the Blackfeet reservation, would be protected from water loss by improvements to the Four Horns Reservoir. Water would be pumped from the reservoir into Birch Creek to replace any water the creek loses to the reservation.

The Montana Legislature already approved the deal, agreeing to spend $20 million on improvements to the Four Horns Reservoir. The state will pay the Blackfeet Tribe an additional $14.5 million to defer development of Birch Creek for 15 years. The settlement also would allo-cate $125 million in federal funds to revitalize the Blackfeet Irrigation Project and provide an additional $93.2 million each year until 2015 for land and water development on the reservation.

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

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who along with Tester introduced the legislation in the Senate in April, said seeing the leaks and cracks in the reservation’s water system convinced him that legis-lation was crucial. “Seeing is believing,” he said. “We’ve got to get the wrinkles sorted out. We’ve got an obligation here.”