Crow Nation celebrates the certainty of a water compact

Billings Gazette

by Mike Ferguson

CROW AGENCY — Crow Nation celebrated the final milestone in its decades-long struggle to gain a water compact the best way it knows how, with a parade, visits from dignitaries and gifts for the people who helped make the water settlement happen — all followed by a big meal.

“Water is profoundly important to the Crow people,” tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote told a crowd seated in the grandstands. “Our elders tell us that rivers are the veins of the world. We’re thankful to the Creator every time we take a drink.”

Gov. Steve Bullock, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, and Estevan Lopez, commissioner of the federal Bureau of Reclamation attended the community-wide celebration. They were given bolo ties, which Bullock and Tester donned to make their speeches.

For her part, Letty Belin — on behalf of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell — gave tribal officials a framed copy of the page from the June 22 Federal Register certifying the compact, which has been in litigation for years.

The Montana Legislature enacted the Crow-Montana Water Compact in 1999, and in 2010, Congress passed the Crow Water Tribes Settlement Act. The agreements give the tribe senior water rights, the right to develop hydroelectric power at Yellowtail Dam, and money to help develop and improve irrigation projects. The 2010 federal law means $460 million to the Crow people, Old Coyote said.

Tester said he proudly voted yes on both bills.

“I was a freshman (state) senator in 1999,” Tester said. “Little did I know that 11 years later I’d be voting for the same settlement as a U.S. senator.”

Tester said the settlement “gives certainty to the Crow people. Without water, there’s no economic development, no quality of life and no future.”

Tribal and state officials “haven’t always seen eye to eye,” Old Coyote said while introducing Bullock. “But, this represents a good deal for both parties.”

According to Bullock, the dispute goes back more than a century when in 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court recognized tribal water rights. “A full century later,” Bullock said, “Crow Nation stands ready to realize the full potential of those rights.”

The lesson is that “the most complex and contentious issues can be solved if there is determination to keep working under difficult circumstances,” Bullock said. “You now have a means to put your water to use.”

Lamenting the fact that “I don’t get out to this part of the country nearly enough,” Lopez, who’s based in Washington, D.C., said that plans to design a hydroelectric facility at Yellowtail Dam should be complete by next year.

“The tribe has already rehabilitated some irrigation systems,” he noted.

Lopez said that bad weather grounded him at the Denver airport Tuesday night, but he took heart from the fact that he was able to participate in the parade held before Wednesday’s noon ceremony.

Pam Williams, director of the Interior Department’s Indian Water Rights Office, said the compact wouldn’t have been successfully completed “except for the will and determination of the Crow people.”

After the long struggle to secure the compact, “today is meant to be a day of celebration and positivity looking forward,” Old Coyote said.