BILLINGS — The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved a $420 million water rights settlement with Montana’s Blackfeet American Indian tribe on Wednesday, sending the measure to the full Senate with how to pay for it still unresolved.
The settlement proposes to rehabilitate the Four Horns Dam and Blackfeet Irrigation Project and make other improvements on the Blackfeet tribe’s northwestern Montana reservation.
Negotiations on the agreement began more than 30 years ago. It was approved by the Montana Legislature in 2009.
Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Harry Barnes said Wednesday’s vote represented an historic milestone in the drawn-out process.
But Barnes added that the measure faces a “tough hurdle” in the House. Only the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee can introduce a bill to adopt the water compact, which must first be approved by the Department of Interior and Department of Justice, said Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana.
Prior attempts to advance the settlement through Congress failed, after the administration of President Barack Obama objected to its original price tag of $591 million.
The latest version, sponsored by Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, emerged from negotiations between the administration and the tribe, Tester said.
Both Tester and Daines said that they would seek ways to offset its price tag using money from other areas of the federal budget.
“We’ve got to find the dough, and there is dough in the Bureau of Reclamation, to do not only this water project but other water projects in the West,” Tester told The Associated Press. “It is incumbent on us to tap some pots of money in there and use them for water.”
The agreement, he added, would provide the tribe with healthy drinking water and help boost economic development, on a reservation that suffers from rampant poverty and unemployment.
The tribe must approve the settlement before it can become effective.
It would require the tribe to waive its legal claims against the federal government over water disputes dating back a century. Those include the government’s past failures to protect the tribes water rights, the diversion of water off the reservation for a government irrigation project and environmental damages caused by that diversion.
Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican from neighboring North Dakota, opposed the Senate measure.
Hoeven expressed concern over its potential consequences for any future water agreements between Montana and North Dakota. Hoeven said the attorneys general of the two states have been in negotiations over the matter but have not resolved it.
Tester said Hoeven’s concerns were speculative and had nothing to do with the Blackfeet settlement.
Correction: In a story Feb. 3 about a water settlement for Montana’s Blackfeet Tribe, The Associated Press reported erroneously that U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke has introduced a bill in the House to adopt the settlement. Zinke has not introduced such a bill. The story has been corrected.