State offers $14.5 million to Blackfeet for water settlement

Choteau, Montana (AP) 10-07

A new draft water rights compact between the state and the Blackfeet Tribe includes a $14.5 million payment if the tribe would agree to defer development in one drainage for 15 years.

The draft was unveiled during October at a meeting of the Legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee in Choteau. The 2007 Legislature authorized the payment

Meanwhile, the state would seek funding from Congress to enlarge the federal Four Horns reservoir in the southern part of the reservation and construct facilities capable of delivering water to Birch Creek water users living off the reservation.

The overall compact also sets conditions under which the tribe can lease its water off the reservation.

Jay Weiner, a staff attorney with the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, emphasized the compact isn’t final. Public comment still needs to be taken and the compact approved by the state Legislature and Congress.

Earlier this year, negotiations stalled before a compact could be submitted to the 2007 Legislature.

In Montana, five of the state’s seven tribes have settled their federal reserved water rights with the state but talks between the state and Blackfeet have been on and off since the 1980s.

Indian tribes have federal reserved water rights implied from an act of Congress or an executive order, such as the creation of a reservation.

Water flows in the St. Mary, Two Medicine and Milk rivers and the Birch, Badger and Cut Bank creeks, which are used by tribal and nontribal members to water stock and irrigate cropland, are at issue in the talks between the state and Blackfeet Tribe.

The plan is to submit the latest proposal to Congress first, rather than wait until 2009 for the state Legislature to convene again, Weiner said.

Congress must authorize the bulk of the funding the tribe will seek in developing its new rights, he said.