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Deal in works for water settlement with Montana tribe

BILLINGS, Mont. – Federal and tribal officials say they are near agreement on a half-billion-dollar water rights settlement for Montana’s Crow Indians that’s been held up by a Wyoming lawmaker.

The settlement is one of several pending in Congress to resolve long-outstanding Indian water claims in the West. Some, including the Crow’s, date back to treaties signed in the 1800s.

Courts have ruled the federal government must ensure tribes have access to water as a basic necessity. But since the government also must pick up water improvement costs that collectively add up to billions of dollars, many of the settlements have stalled through multiple administrations.

The Crow compact faces an added wrinkle: Republican Sen. John Barrasso in Wyoming has blocked the measure since last year, over concerns it could weaken his state’s influence over the region’s scarce water supplies.

The Crow’s water would be drawn from the Bighorn River and Bighorn Lake, which stretch from Wyoming downstream into neighboring Montana.

After meeting with Barrasso recently, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said a deal was in the works to let the bill move forward when Congress returns from its August recess.

The bill would give the Crow guaranteed rights to large volumes of water for their arid, rural reservation – plus $527 million for drinking water and irrigation upgrades, industrial projects and other programs.

“We don’t have it down on paper and everybody hasn’t signed off yet, but we’ve come a long way,” Tester said. “The changes that I saw, I could live with.”

Barrasso spokesman Greg Keeley said negotiations over the settlement were continuing. He said the intent was to reach an agreement and get the bill before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in September.

“We are still working with the Montana delegation to work out our differences,” Keeley said.

Crow attorney Donald Pongrace said any deal between Tester and Barrasso would mark a breakthrough if it holds up through the committee. The Crow settlement measure before the Senate is largely based on a water rights compact approved by the Montana Legislature in 1999.

“It’s been a very long process and this would be a very significant step,” Pongrace said.

A similar bill is pending in the House.

The settlement’s $527 million price tag includes $200 million for a municipal and industrial water system, $160 million for irrigation and $40 million for economic development.

Most of the rest of the money would be spent on maintaining those projects and for operations of Yellowtail Dam, a Bureau of Reclamation project within the reservation along the Bighorn River.

Any settlement approved by Congress would have to be voted on by the full tribal membership.

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