By Alan Sorensen
Water Is Sacred e mah ni tow wah ki tek nip piy. Water gives life to everything.
Those are the premises that drive the Chippewa Cree Tribes water rights and water resources personnel on their quest to secure water adequate for sustained life on Rocky Boys Indian Reservation.
Its the principle by which weve begun to pursue all of our watershed management activities, said Jay Eagleman, tribal water resource manager.
And thats the message tribal leaders and water experts hope to convey to Congress when they travel to Washington, D.C. next week.
This is picture-book perfect about how to do a water rights in this Rocky Boy agreement, Tribal Water Resource Director Jim Morsette said. Were going to go back and meet with the senate and house staffers now to educate them let them know what Rocky Boy is.
The team heading to Washington to meet with congressional aides includes Morsette and Eagleman, Tribal Water Committee Chairman Bruce Sunchild, water committee members Alvin WindyBoy and Kelly Eagleman, and tribal lawyer Dan Belcourt.
Rocky Boys attempts to reach agreement with state and federal governments and downstream water users began in earnest nearly 20 years ago. Federal law requires that all federal reserves, including military bases, national parks, and Indian reservations reach reserved water rights compact agreements within the next few years.
Montanas Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission was established by the Legislature in 1979 to negotiate those rights on behalf of the state. Each Indian reservation was to be represented by its own team in the negotiations with the state negotiators and negotiators representing the federal government.
The Fort Peck and Northern Cheyenne reservations in Montana already have won congressional approval of their agreements. Rocky Boys and Crow reservations are in the process of seeking approval of theirs.
The process was long and tedious, requiring unprecedented cooperation among state and tribal negotiating teams and input from downstream water rights holders.
The Chippewa Cree Tribes notice of intent to pursue a water rights negotiation was made in 1982. In August 1992, the tribe submitted its settlement proposal. It became the subject of numerous negotiating sessions over the next few years. The first public session was held in Havre on Oct. 29, 1992.
The first news of the impending negotiations to define and quantify the reservations water rights to the year 2050 was met by skepticism and even hostility from all sides. Both downstream users, mostly whites living between the reservation and the Milk River, and reservation residents felt threatened by clearly defined amount of water for the reservation.
The downstream users were understandably concerned that a water compact agreement between the state and tribe would limit their access to water.
Bear Paw Resources Alliance (BPRA), under the direction of Thomas Sheehy of Big Sandy, held its organizational meeting on Dec. 9, 1992. That meeting attracted more than 100 concerned downstream users and several local and state office holders. Though the BPRA had no official capacity in the negotiations, its well organized machine expressed several serious concerns and contributed a number of suggestions to both the tribe and state.
The state met individually with nearly all users below the reservation on the Box Elder and Beaver Creek drainages. Downstream communities along the Milk River also gave their go-ahead.
Many tribal members also were afraid, afraid that their negotiators would sign away future water needs.
As they educated themselves to the negotiating process, Eagleman said, tribal members came to understand that the tribes proposed agreement was designed to better utilize a resource.
The end result, Morsette said, will be the enhancement of streams and fisheries for our neighbors and ourselves.
Once the state compact commission, tribe and federal negotiating teams reach agreement, the pact requires the approval of the state legislature, U.S. Congress, and then the governors signature. In Rocky Boys case, the Legislature and Gov. Marc Racicot gave very early approval to the agreement. The Legislature passed the agreement into law on April 14, 1997.
Montanas two senators, Democrat Max Baucus and Republican Conrad Burns, have been behind the agreement from the beginning. They introduced Senate Bill 438 to provide settlement of the tribes water rights claims on April 1, 1998. Rep. Rick Hill, a republican, has also thrown his support behind passage of the compact and introduced the same bill in the House of Representatives on the same day.
Its nearly a year and a half later, and Congress has yet to act on the bill.
At the end of June 1999, members of the state and tribal water teams argued in favor of ratification in Washington, D.C. Chris Tweeten, a Havre native who chaired the state compact commission during the negotiations, and commission lawyer Barb Cozens both spoke on the agreements behalf.
Tweetens arguments included letters of support for the compact from Sheehy on behalf of the downstream water users represented by Bear Paw Resources Alliance. Also included were letters of support from the Hill County Commission, Harlem Irrigation District, Paradise Valley Irrigation District, Fort Belknap Irrigation District, Alfalfa Irrigation District, Malta Irrigation District, and Glasgow Irrigation District.
David J. Hayes, new Deputy Secretary of the Interior, also read a six-page statement in support of the compact.
The reservation covers about 110,000 acres, Hayes told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on June 30, and has a growing population with a current tribal enrollment of more than 3,500. Unemployment averages between 60 and 70 percent.
The municipal water supply consists of 12 community wells and about 240 individual wells, most of which suffer from low production due to aquifer overdraft or improper siting.
The proposal covered by the bill includes the following projects, accompanying funding, and funding sources.
Chippewa Cree Fund ($21 million from Bureau of Indian Affairs budget):
Tribal compact administration account, $3 million;
Economic development account, $3 million;
Future water supply facilities account, $15 million over three years;
On-reservation Water Development ($25 million from Bureau of Reclamation budget):
Bonneau Reservoir enlargement, $13 million in 2000;
East Fork, Towe and Browns reservoirs improvements, $8 million in 2001;
Completion of dam and other water projects, $3 million in 2002;
Bureau administrative costs associated with tribal water development, $1 million in 2000.
Feasibility Studies ($4 million from Bureau of Reclamation budget):
Municipal, rural and industrial feasibility study of water and related resources in north central Montana, $1 million ($.5 million in FY 1999 and $.5 million in FY 2000);
Regional feasibility study to evaluate water and related resources in north central Montana.
According to Hayes, the bill, if passed, would recognize the Tribes right to approximately 10,000 acre feet of water on the reservation.
The tribe also needs approval for a quality drinking water project capable of meeting federal clean drinking water standards.
The bill calls for a set-aside of another 10,000 acre feet of water stored in Tiber Reservoir, but does not describe or ask funding for a delivery system to transport the water to the reservation about 40 miles away.
A plan to erect a water treatment facility at Tiber Reservoir and pipe the drinking water to the reservation was removed from the bill. That plan, however, does remain a possible project for future consideration, Hayes said.
Now its up to Congress to act on a bill that has nearly unanimous support in north central Montana.
This is an obligation (Congress has) through treaties, Morsette said. Its the responsibility to the Indian nations of the United States. This is the most sacred obligation they have.