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Agreement means improved water rights

RAPID CITY, S.D. - An historic signing forged a working partnership between tribes and the federal government in a Memorandum of Agreement that made water rights a high-level issue for the 28-member reservations of Mni Sose, an intertribal water rights coalition.

The Bureau of Reclamation will provide technical assistance, funding and cooperative support to develop quality water systems on reservations while maintaining tribal sovereignty with protection for trust assets to help create economic development through clean water.

"I look forward to the relationship between the bureau and the tribes," said Eluid Martinez, commissioner of the bureau.

"In the past the relationship was not adequate. When I took over, we saw the bureau could help Indian country and we have now seen success. We will see more success down the road."

Martinez said the agreement with the tribes of the Missouri River Basin will parallel that of an agreement with the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in Indian country.

There were two issues to the agreement, he said. One was the quantification of the water rights. The pueblos of New Mexico have litigated that issue since the 1960s, he said. The other issue is to provide an infrastructure and provide water for growth.

He said decisions on water quality and water rights were decided by consultants and attorneys who worked for the tribes. With the new agreement, the tribes will have the expertise to make the water rights decisions on their own.

"Today members and the tribal leadership are getting more involved to develop more expertise to run the systems yourselves," he told a gathering of Mni Sose members.

"It's one thing to sign the agreement, it's another to see something come out of it. It will take a commitment by both parties."

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Gary Collins, president of Mni Sose, said signing of an agreement was overdue and the move to approve the memorandum could only have positive effects on progress to establish clean water on the 28 reservations.

"Water is a common thread among all of us. We will build and expand on this agreement and someday each tribe will benefit from it. Now we must get down and do the work," Collins said.

He added that someday all tribes would sign a memorandum of agreement with the government to assist the work toward clean and abundant water for reservations.

The purpose of the agreement is to provide engineering and technical assistance to tribes, protect trust status, promote tribal economic development, manage the water resources and enhance ecosystems.

The agreement will allow Mni Sose to link the 28 members of the coalition and the Bureau of Reclamation and to help meet needs and goals of the tribes.

Mni Sose will act as the clearing house for information on technical aspects of water management and serve as a training center for courses related to water management for the tribes. The coalition will conduct periodic planning and strategy sessions to develop schedules and work plans for water development projects.

The bureau is responsible to seek out and identify funding priorities for the tribes while it provides technical expertise with environmental issues. It will also transfer technology to the tribes as needed.

"As sovereign nations, tribes recognize their responsibility to protect and manage tribal natural resources, especially water resources, to conserve these resources, and to maintain their quality for our tribal members and future generations.

"This responsibility includes gaining knowledge of the present state and quality of tribal waters, developing management systems that maintain the integrity of the water resources, and developing plans that maximize the benefits of this resource for our tribes," Collins said.