By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The vice chairman of the Blackfeet tribal council said the council should have been involved in a federal study of ways to increase the water supply in north-central Montana.
Vice Chairman Pat Thomas noted that much of the report deals with water that originates on the Blackfeet Reservation.
"Who gave them permission to write about the creeks and rivers on the reservation?" Thomas asked during the public comment portion of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group meeting Wednesday in Havre. The Bureau of Reclamation report was made public at the meeting.
Lenny Duberstein of the Bureau of Reclamation said in a telephone interview Thursday that the bureau had to walk a fine line because the tribe is negotiating a water rights compact with the state and federal government. The bureau didn't want to affect those negotiations, he said.
The report was written at the request of the state and Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation during negotiations of Rocky Boy's water rights compact in the 1990s. Congress in 1999 ordered the Bureau of Reclamation to conduct a study to find ways to best resolve problems in north-central Montana's water supply.
The report found that of the three river systems in the area - the Milk, Marias and St. Mary rivers - only the Milk River is short of water to meet current needs. It found that the best way to improve the water supply and meet current and future needs is to rehabilitate the St. Mary Diversion, which is on the Blackfeet reservation. It also lists other ways to improve the availability and management of water in the Milk River.
The working group was created last year to find ways to pay for the estimated $100 million price tag to fix the diversion, which was authorized in 1903 to provide water for irrigation in the Milk River.
John Tubbs of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, an ex officio member of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, said the public wasn't very involved in the process of preparing the report, which is what led to Thomas' comments Wednesday.
"What that is all about is the lack of public involvement," Tubbs said.
Duberstein said the people doing the study talked with some members of the Blackfeet tribal council early in the study, although the bureau did not formally approach the council. It also contacted members of the tribe's technical staff later in the process, he said. Public meetings also were held, he added.
The bureau was not required to conduct public meetings because the report makes no recommendations on what action to take, Duberstein said.
"We were basically doing a report to present opportunities," he added.
Mike Tatsey, water resources director at the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, said Thursday the technical staff of the reservation was contacted, but very late in the process. The technical staff was not satisfied with the analysis of issues on the reservation, including water rights, and objected to the report being issued in its current form, he said.
It was impossible to tell how the report would impact the reservation, he added.
"We objected to the study because they left a large part of the reservation out," said Tatsey, who is a member of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group.
Duberstein said the report had to be written that way to make sure it wouldn't affect the water rights negotiations.
"We did acknowledge that they had some definite needs and would have a big impact on whatever happened. We tried to keep an opening to accomodate any development that came out of their settlement," he said. "Yet we couldn't come out and address (those needs)."