On Friday, January 13, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Deputy Secretary Michael L. Connor joined with tribes and members of Congress to celebrate the enactment of four historic Indian water rights settlements that will benefit nine tribes.
The celebration included leaders from the Blackfeet Tribe, the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, the La Jolla, Rincon, San Pasqual, Pauma and Pala Bands of Mission Indians, and the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians.
U.S. Congressman Tom Cole was also in attendance, along with a number of tribal leaders.
During the announcement and celebration, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell thanked the leaders of the tribes in attendance and informed the attendees that the Obama Administration has reached more water settlements than any administration in history.
“With these four agreements, the Obama Administration has completed a dozen landmark Indian water rights settlements – more than any previous administration – that put an end to complex and litigious water rights controversies for 20 tribes in New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, California and Nevada,” Secretary Jewell said. “Today’s celebration marks not only these incredible accomplishments, but the start of a new journey working together to implement these hard-won settlements.
“The settlements, which have been a top priority of this Administration, represent the culmination of generations of hard work and dedication by the tribes and their neighbors,” said Deputy Secretary Connor.
"Each of the settlements had widespread local and bipartisan congressional support, and implementing the agreements will bring much needed investments to Indian country, help stabilize water supplies in various communities, and improve water resources management for all concerned, including non-Indian communities.”
According to the Department of the Interior release, the tribes will be benefiting from $3 billion in funding authorized for Indian water rights settlements to help in providing safe drinking water and support for economic development such as hydroelectric power, agricultural improvement and more in the face of the need for water on many Indian reservations.
The tribes listed by Interior and the corresponding benefits are as follows:
The Blackfeet settlement reflects decades of struggle and commitment by the Tribe – and negotiations with the State of Montana – to quantify and secure a tribal water right of more than 800,000 acre-feet while protecting the rights of existing water users. The settlement includes funding for the Tribe to develop and manage its water resources.
The Pechanga settlement, which will partially settle litigation filed by the United States in 1951, was achieved only after a long and arduous struggle. The Pechanga Band negotiated the settlement with its neighbors, the Rancho California Water District, Eastern Municipal Water District and the Metropolitan Water District. The Band has tirelessly pursued the quantification of its water rights and engaged its neighbors in a multi-year process of building mutual trust and understanding. The resulting settlement benefits all of the parties, securing adequate water supplies for tribal members and encouraging cooperative water resources management among all parties.
The Choctaw and Chickasaw settlement in Oklahoma – the first Indian water settlement to be finalized in that state – reflects a unique and collaborative approach to water management in the Nations’ historic treaty territories. It will advance a collaborative approach to water management and help achieve water security for the State of Oklahoma and the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. The settlement includes important protections for the Nations’ future and existing water rights, conserves water resources and provides for cooperation in the regulation of water use.
The San Luis Rey settlement allows full implementation of amendments to the 1988 San Luis Rey Indian Water Rights Settlement Act that benefits the La Jolla, Rincon, San Pasqual, Pauma and Pala Bands of Mission Indians in southern California. The agreement allows the five Bands and the local parties to realize the full benefits of the 1988 Act, including: expressly recognizing the continuing federal reserved water rights of the Bands; addressing the fair allocation of water among the Bands; protecting the water rights of allottees; waiving all past claims the Bands may have against the U.S. regarding water rights and breach of trust relating to water rights; and allowing the Bands to access a trust fund established in 1988 that has now grown to approximately $60 million.
During the event, many tribal leaders came to the podium to express appreciation to the Obama Administration and spoke of the decades-long fights for justice they had endured.
Chickasaw Nation Ambassador at Large Neal McCaleb noted how the Bureau of Indian affairs had not been a friendly ally in history, but now the Interior Department had made considerable progress in restoring long-needed water rights.
Leaders of the Blackfeet Nation spoke well of incoming Secretary Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) and due to his positive history in working with tribes, said they were hopeful for continous progress in the upcoming administration.
Geneva Fitzsimmons, Vice Chair of the San Luis Rey Authority perhaps summed up the day’s event with a sincere statement of appreciation. “This is more than just a water rights settlement. It is a lifetime of work and effort. It wasn’t always easy. I dreamed of this day.”
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