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A Historic Day for Crow Water Rights

Cedric Black Eagle
12/16/10

On Nov. 30, 2010, the United States Congress passed the Claims Settlement Act of 2010, a package of bills settling claims against the United States related to the hard-fought Cobell Indian trust lawsuit, the Pigford lawsuit by African-American farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and four Indian water rights settlements – Crow Tribe, White Mountain Apache Tribe, Taos Pueblo, and Aamodt settlements. This act provides for settlement of some of the longest standing court cases in this country. Perhaps most importantly, these settlements provide much needed certainty for Indian country and for the United States government.

I have been involved in the Crow Water Rights Settlement Act from the time of its inception, when the tribe began negotiations with the state of Montana, resulting in the Crow Tribe—State of Montana Water Rights Compact, ratified by the Montana Legislature in 1999. Today, 13 years later, I am blessed to serve as chairman of the Great Crow Nation when we have completed negotiations with the federal government and we, the Crow people have the final say in the outcome of this effort. I want to thank the Crow tribal members who have served as part of the negotiating team through the years for their efforts and dedication. The Crow people now have an unprecedented opportunity to accept a settlement that has been fully ratified by Congress and signed by the President of the United States.

The Crow—Montana Water Rights Compact secures the Crow Tribe’s rights to water. Currently, we have claims for water, which are not enforceable until they have been adjudicated and decreed – a process that can span many decades and which has proven costly and unpredictable for other tribes. The compact sets out a water right for the Crow Tribe and also establishes that the tribe and its members will have jurisdiction over distribution of our water. Tribal members will not be forced into state court to assert claims for water. The compact secures to the tribe 500,000 acre feet per year of the natural flow of the Big Horn River, and up to 300,000 acre feet of storage rights in Yellowtail Lake. It secures the natural flow and groundwater in all other basins on the Crow Reservation to the Crow Tribe and its members, while recognizing state uses that were in place as of 1999.

Our team – comprised of many individuals over the years—has worked hard to ensure that the federal component of this settlement provides meaningful benefits to all members of our community. All tribal members living on the Crow Reservation will benefit from access to safe, clean water. Access to water is taken for granted by many in our nation. Residents of the Crow Reservation currently cannot depend on the safety of the water supply in our communities. The water is often unfit to consume or bathe your children in. This will change with the ratification of the Crow Water Rights Settlement Act. We will receive funding for a municipal rural and industrial water system, including a treatment plant and pipeline construction to each community on the Crow Reservation.

The Water Rights Settlement Act also provides funding to upgrade the Crow Irrigation Project. The project was funded largely by the sale of “surplus” Crow tribal lands, but was never built to provide an adequate water delivery system for the valuable agricultural lands on the Crow Reservation. With this funding, we will ensure that allottees are able to make full use of their irrigated lands and water rights. Landowners will be able to realize their lands’ full economic potential, be it through farming, ranching, or leasing of these lands. This will provide certainty as to water allocations and usage – something that we desperately need in Crow Country.

The effort to secure funding at the federal level has been frustrating at times. Indian water right settlements were recently categorized by some federal lawmakers as earmarks. That characterization is incorrect. The United States has an explicit trust responsibility to protect Indian water rights. When it fails to do so, as it failed the Crow Tribe, the White Mountain Apache Tribe, and the Pueblos of Taos, San Ildefonso, Nambe, Pojoaque and Tesuque, the United States is liable for its breach of the trust responsibility. To call these Indian water right settlements earmarks denigrates the claims of Native Americans and maligns the trust relationship. I applaud Congress for moving on these long overdue settlements.

While many have been involved in this process, I want to particularly thank our constituent Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus. Sen. Tester was instrumental in introducing the bill and moving it through committee in the Senate. Sen. Baucus was responsible for producing the overall package of settlements, including ours and the Cobell settlement, both of which have great significance to the state of Montana.

President Obama signed the Claims Settlement Act of 2010 into law on Dec. 8, 2010. This is truly a historic day for Indian country.

Chairman Cedric Black Eagle is a former member of the Crow Water Rights Negotiating Team. Black Eagle, “Shikiak-itche,” which means “Good Boy,” was elected and inaugurated as chairman of the Apsaalooke (Crow) Nation in 2009.

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