In a unanimous vote Wednesday, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee passed the Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act, moving one step closer toward full congressional approval of the historic compact, which has been awaiting ratification since 2010.
Negotiations between the Blackfeet Tribe, local communities and state and federal governments began more than 30 years ago to establish water rights in and around the reservation. The compact will also help rehabilitate the Four Horns Dam and long-neglected, century-old Blackfeet Irrigation Project; give the tribe the ability to use, lease or exchange water on tribal land; and protect the rights of non-Indian water users and members of the Fort Belknap Indian Community.
It also includes provisions that protect off-reservation farmers and ranchers that rely upon the water for irrigation purposes.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, has introduced the Blackfeet measure four times — in 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2016.
U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, has also been an advocate of ratifying the compact, and said approval by the House Natural Resource Committee signifies progress for the beleaguered bill.
“This is a giant step forward, truly historic,” Zinke said in a statement. “The Blackfeet have waited the longest and given up the most.”
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines also applauded the compact’s passage.
“I’m thrilled to see this milestone for the Blackfeet water rights settlement,” Daines said in a statement. “This compact is long overdue and I remain committed to seeing it enacted into law.”
Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member Roland Kennerly traveled to Washington, D.C., for the vote, noting that his father worked to help craft the compact.
“The water compact benefits Montana and the Tribe because of economic development for our members and also for use for people downstream like farmers and ranchers. It will promote a lot of jobs for our members,” Kennerly. It’s a great day for the Blackfeet. It has been a long process for many, many years; my father worked on it throughout the years and we are joyful we got it through the markup.”
The U.S. Senate finally passed the Blackfeet water rights deal in September, the furthest the agreement between the tribe and the state of Montana had advanced since its introduction in 2010.
The high-ticket compact came with a $420 million price tag, making it the state’s second largest Indian water rights settlement, but the funding has not been approved as part of the compact legislation.
Among other provisions, the Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act of 2016 would establish the tribe’s water rights in all six drainages within the reservation, including St. Mary River, Milk River, Cut Bank Creek, Two Medicine River, Badger Creek and Birch Creek. It would also give the Blackfeet Tribe the ability to use, lease, contract, or exchange water on tribal land, and protect the tribe’s water rights from development by others.