Zinke signs historic Blackfeet water rights settlement

Zinke signs historic Blackfeet water rights settlement

Source: Missoulian
Click here to read the article: http://missoulian.com/news/local/zinke-signs-historic-blackfeet-water-rights-settlement/article_272851ab-0b0d-54ff-b706-76137133aeb0.html

In a historic move, and surrounded by Blackfeet tribal members, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke signed paperwork transferring the first $800,000 of what is expected to be $470 million agreement for water-related projects as part of the Water Rights Settlement Act.

The Act quantifies the tribe’s water rights, and confirms its jurisdiction over those rights on the reservation. It’s been called one of the most important developments in the past 100 years for the Blackfeet.

“This will have a tremendous impact on our children and grandchildren,” Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Harry Barnes told Zinke. “It will impact the Blackfeet people for years to come.”

Barnes said he knows the tribe has a lot of work ahead, but they are up to the task and will spend the money wisely and expeditiously.

The signing ceremony in the tribe’s council chambers was filled with Blackfeet members, as well as a handful of people from other tribes. It began with a presentation of the colors by Blackfeet military veterans, followed by comments, a song and a prayer in the Blackfeet language and later in English by Earl Old Person, chief of the Blackfeet Nation, who asked for guidance and aid for his people.

The meeting concluded with Blackfeet council members draping a light-blue ceremonial star quilt across Zinke’s shoulders as a show of appreciation for his efforts.

Zinke noted that Friday’s signing was the culmination of many years of work.

“We started this even before I was a state senator,” Zinke said. “Then, they were battling in the halls of Congress, and now, as Secretary of the Interior, it is nice to see progress being done.

“There are treaty obligations Interior will honor, and this represents that great beginning.”

The Montana Legislature approved the compact in 2009, but it wasn’t signed into law by President Barack Obama until 2016, after winding its way through Congress and a vote of the Blackfeet people.

The process actually dates back to the early 1970s, when the state of Montana began a water adjudication effort to determine all water rights within the state, including those of the tribes. The effort faced legal challenges that led to a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed the process to move forward.

The compact provides $422 million in federal funding to the tribes, along with $49 million in state funding for water-related infrastructure projects on the reservation. Those will include new or improved irrigation systems, development of community water systems, enhancement and management of fisheries, and land acquisition.

The agreement also entitles the Blackfeet tribe to nearly 800,000 acre-feet of water on average from six water basins including Milk River, Cut Bank Creek, Badger Creek, Two Medicine, Saint Mary River and Birch Creek. They also can draw up to 45,000 acre-feet of water from Tiber Dam.

An acre-foot is the amount of water that covers 1 acre of land 1 foot deep, and equals 325,851 gallons.

Zinke said the $800,000 allocation will allow the tribe to begin hiring staff and engineering consultants and to contract for legal services, which is the first step toward realizing the benefits afforded by the settlement.

“You represent the true warriors of the plains,” Zinke, a former Navy Seal, told the crowd. “You are a warrior nation. As a former warrior Seal, I respect that … I’m committed to working closely with you.”

Afterward, Barnes took Zinke on a tour of Heart Butte, which was dealt a significant blow this winter from deep snow and strong winds. Although the sun was shining and many of the roads have been cleared, the snow was melting and the tribe now fears spring flooding.

Barnes asked Zinke for a national emergency declaration, which would provide federal funding for the snow removal effort, as well as alleviate impacts to ranchers and farmers.

“A lot of Blackfeet people pulled together and helped us get through that,” Barnes said. “We are not there yet, but are seeking a declaration at a national level so our producers can seek reimbursements.”

On Friday afternoon, Gov. Steve Bullock announced that $200,000 in emergency energy assistance funding would be released to help eligible families on the Blackfeet, Fort Belknap and Northern Cheyenne reservations facing severe winter weather conditions.

The money, from a federally funded program that helps low-income families keep warm during the winter, will be made available to local tribal agencies through a contract with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.