Blackfeet Nation Ratifies Water Compact

Courtesy Blackfeet Nation / Left to right, Blackfeet Tribal Business Councilors Tyson Running Wolf, Roland Kennerly, Carl Kipp, Terry Tatsey, Tim Davis, and Gerald Lunak in Washington, DC January 13, 2017, after Congress passed the compact and the president added his signature.

Terri Hansen

It took 35 years for the Blackfeet Nation to control its own water

In what the Blackfeet Nation is calling their most important development in a century, a majority of tribal members approved the Blackfeet Water Compact and Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act with Montana and the federal government, by a vote of 1,894 to 631.

Harry Barnes, Chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, called it a “historic day for the Blackfeet people,” and well worth the time that Blackfeet staff and leaders had put into the effort the past four decades.

“My faith in the wisdom of the people’s vote has come to reality,” he said in a statement.

The history of the struggle between the tribes in Montana, and the State of Montana, over water rights began in the 1970s, when the federal government filed court water rights cases on behalf of all Montana tribes.

Montana filed competing water rights cases in state court. The U.S. and the tribes challenged Montana’s assertion that it had jurisdiction over Indian water rights on the reservation. What ensued was a history of court battles, meetings and negotiations that eventually led to the compact agreed to by Montana and the federal government. The last step was an April 20 vote by the Blackfeet membership.

The compact confirms the Tribe’s water quantity and rights, the Tribe’s jurisdiction and its authority to manage those rights on the reservation. Montana’s legislature ratified it in 2009, Congress approved the bill, and it was signed by President Barack Obama in January 2017.

The compact provides $422 million in federal funding for water-related projects on the reservation. Montana contributed an additional $49 million. The money will become available to the Tribe over a number of years.

“The funding will pay for such projects as installing municipal water systems to all communities on the reservation,” Jerry Lunak, the Blackfeet Water Resources Director told Indian Country Media Network. “We expect upgrades to existing irrigation systems on the reservation, and cost sharing for tribal members and others to upgrade irrigation on tribal and allotted lands.”

The main community on the Blackfeet Reservation is Browning, Montana. It happens to be the eastern entrance to Glacier National Park, with its incredible landscapes, alpine meadows, crystal-clear lakes and the glaciated mountain range—plus hordes of visitors. The park had about three million visitors last year, and although Browning hosts just one of four entrances, this presents opportunity for the Blackfeet Nation.

In a bid to attract those tourists to Blackfeet country, another project is slated to further develop and upgrade several campgrounds on the reservation. The settlement will also provide funding to upgrade their recreational lakes and improve their fisheries.

These projects mean jobs and benefits for tribal members on the rural reservation.

“The benefits of the water compact will be seen for generations to come,” Barnes said.