Blackfeet Tribe resolves longstanding water war with U.S. government

Two Medicine River flows out of Glacier National Park toward the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The river is part of the water rights settlement signed Tuesday. (DAVID REESE/Courthouse News)

(Courthouse News) One of the final water-rights settlements between the United States and Native American tribes was signed Tuesday, resolving a generation-long battle between the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and the federal government.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Blackfeet Nation Chairman Harry Barnes signed documents that implement the Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement and Blackfeet Water Compact of 2009.

Senator Jon Tester, D-Montana, and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, also signed the agreement.

Water rights have been a continuing and horrifyingly complicated issue in the West since Mark Twain wrote that he fell into a river in California one day and came up all dusty.

The Montana Legislature established the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission in 1979 to help settle water rights claims between the state and its seven recognized Native American tribes.

The agreement signed Tuesday will go to the Montana Water Court and will begin the process for issuing a final decree of the Blackfeet Tribe’s water rights.

The agreement provides $470 million — $422 million from the federal government and $49 million from Montana — for water-related projects on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

The settlement resolves outstanding water rights claims on about 750,000 acre-feet of water on the reservation and recognizes the Blackfeet Tribe’s religious and cultural uses of water.

An acre-foot (325,823 gallons) is enough water to cover 1 acre 1 foot deep. City planners estimate that a typical U.S. family in the suburbs uses about 1 acre-foot a year.

The nonpartisan Montana Reserved Water Rights Commission has negotiated water compacts with the Montana Legislature. Compacts have been passed with the seven tribes of Montana — the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Crow Tribe, the Gros Ventre & Assiniboine of the Fort Belknap Reservation, the Chippewa Cree of the Rocky Boy Reservation, and the Blackfeet Tribe.

The Montana Native American tribes’ water rights were reserved by the 1855 Blackfeet Treaty with the United States. On April 20, 2017 Blackfeet Tribe members voted to accept the Blackfeet Water Compact and Settlement Act.

Zinke, from Whitefish, Montana, worked on the Blackfeet tribal water compact during his tenure as a Montana legislator and as a member of the U.S. House.

“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,” Zinke said in a statement. “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.”

Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes said the agreement completes decades of negotiations and will allow the tribes to manage their own water. About 16,000 tribal members live on the Blackfeet Reservation, on the eastern border of Glacier National Park.

“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,” Barnes said in a statement. “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.”

Tester, a two-term senator from Big Sandy, introduced the water rights compact in Congress with the Blackfeet tribes.

“The Blackfeet Water Compact reaffirms water rights, saves taxpayers from costly litigation, and invests in critical water infrastructure in northwest Montana,” 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.”

Congress included $800,000 in initial funding for the Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act in its spending bill for 2017. In March, Zinke signed the first authorization of funds for the Blackfeet Tribe.