WASHINGTON- The US Department of the Interior and the Blackfeet Nation have officially implemented the Water Rights Settlement of 2016.
Blackfeet chairman Harry Barnes and Secretary Ryan Zinke singed the documents at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday morning. The settlement was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2016. Tribal members then ratified the compact in a vote last spring.
“The Blackfeet are one of Montana’s great warrior Nations, and like true warriors, they fought every step of the way for their people to get this settlement over the finish line. I was proud to stand by them as a State Senator, Congressman and now Secretary of the Interior,” said Secretary Zinke. “The Blackfeet have given up so much during this long process. Water is more than a drinking source to the Blackfeet, it’s their life source and we must respect and honor their culture and rights. I’m grateful for the work of many tireless officials and public servants over the years from the Tribe, State, Congress, and Federal government who have made this day a reality."
“This journey for justice and empowerment for the Blackfeet people with respect to one of our most vital resources has taken well over a century and a half,” said Blackfeet Tribe Chairman Harry Barnes. “Now, we start on a new path to realizing what our ancestors had always valued: the preservation of our culture, our people, and our opportunities to make real the treaty promise of a homeland for the Blackfeet people and our right to control our destiny.”
“It is my pleasure to extend my congratulations to Chairman Barnes and members of the Blackfeet Tribe on this important milestone for their community,” said Governor Steve Bullock of Montana. “Today’s agreement reflects many years of dedication and hard work on behalf of state, federal and tribal partners and our congressional delegation. I’m pleased that together we are able to celebrate and affirm the sovereign rights of the Blackfeet Nation to their water resources.”
“The Blackfeet Tribe has been waiting a long time for this day,” said Senator Steve Daines. “Today’s ceremony marks an important step toward the Blackfeet Tribe and surrounding communities having access to reliable water and seeing improvements to water infrastructure projects critical to farmers, ranchers and the local economy.”
“The Blackfeet Water Compact reaffirms water rights, saves taxpayers from costly litigation, and invests in critical water infrastructure in northwest Montana,” Senator Jon Tester said. “I was proud to have introduced and fought for this bill in Congress and will continue to hold Congress accountable to the Blackfeet Nation to secure the funding needed to carry out this historic agreement. I want to congratulate Chairman Barnes and the Blackfeet people on the culmination of years of hard work.”
“Today is a great day for Chairman Barnes and the Blackfeet Tribe, who have waited far too long for this agreement,” said Congressman Greg Gianforte. “The settlement is the direct result of the hard work and dedication of the Tribe, the Department of Interior, and other key stakeholders. I will continue working with the Tribe and my colleagues to implement the full settlement in a timely manner.”
The compact includes $471 million for water-related projects including new or improved irrigation systems, the development of community water systems and land acquisition.
It also resolves and quantifies tribal water rights. It gives the Blackfeet the rights to three-quarters of a million acre-feet of surface water and nearly all the groundwater on the reservation, as well as some water off the reservation.
A study completed by the U.S. Department of interior projects that the settlement act could create up to 500 short-term jobs and up to 200 long-term jobs.
The compact has been in the works for more than three decades.
- Recognizes the Blackfeet Tribe’s religious and cultural uses of water.
- Resolves all outstanding Blackfeet water claims, quantifies a tribal water right to more than 750,000 acre-feet of surface water and nearly all groundwater on the Reservation, and funds the construction and rehabilitation of water related infrastructure on the Reservation for the benefit of the tribal community.
- Includes an allocation of 45,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Elwell located behind Tiber Dam, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) facility.
- Confirms tribal instream flow water rights on ceded lands that now are a part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest and Glacier National Park.
- Grants the Tribe the exclusive right to develop hydropower within the St. Mary Unit of the Milk River Project, a BOR project.
- Funds not only water-related construction projects, but fisheries, recreation, and energy programs as well. Such programs are designed to promote economic development and develop long term employment opportunities for Blackfeet tribal members.
- Resolves age-old disputes among the Tribe and its neighbors, as well as with the state and the federal government, and encourages long-term harmony and cooperation among all parties.
– information from Eric Jochim included in this report