Great Falls Tribune: Montana’s Blackfeet Tribe, Zinke put water deal into effect

BILLINGS —  Leaders of the Blackfeet Nation and U.S. Interior Department on Tuesday put into effect a $471 million settlement of water rights claims that was decades in the making for the northwestern Montana American Indian tribe.

Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed documents in Washington, D.C., that set the stage for the government to begin paying for drinking water and irrigation projects envisioned in the agreement. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed the documents last week.

The settlement gives the tribe control over 95 percent of the water on its 2,340-square mile reservation, Barnes told The Associated Press.

The Blackfeet and many other tribes across the U.S. signed treaties, in some cases more than 150 years ago, that established reservations for them to live on and reserved their rights to water. However, in many cases the details of those water rights weren’t specified in the original documents and have been determined only in the modern era.

The agreement calls for improvements to irrigation systems, the development of a community water system and land acquisition. Negotiations on the deal began in the 1980s and terms were finalized in 2007, according to the tribe.

Payout of the $471 million could take years: The Interior Department’s 2019 proposed budget included only $10 million for the settlement. Barnes said tribal leaders are working to persuade lawmakers in Congress to increase that amount, but predicted it would be a lengthy and recurring process.

The 2018 budget included $29.5 million for the settlement, according to the offices of U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester.

Zinke, who’s from Montana, worked on the issue first as a state senator and later as Montana’s lone U.S. representative before President Donald Trump appointed him as a cabinet member last year, according to his office. He said in a statement that water is the “life source” for the Blackfeet.

“We must respect and honor their culture and rights,” Zinke said.

Blackfeet tribal leaders and Montana’s congressional delegation attended Tuesday’s signing ceremony.

The settlement was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2016 and approved by 75 percent of voting tribal members in a special election last year.

A lawsuit challenging the settlement is pending before a federal judge in Montana. A small group of Blackfeet who are plaintiffs in the case argued in court filings that the special election violated the rights of tribal members living off the reservation who were unable to participate.

Attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department are seeking to dismiss the case.