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Tribal water coalition chides BIA

RAPID CITY, S.D. ? Members of a 27-tribe water rights coalition let BIA officers know in a Jan. 9 board meeting that they were unhappy with funding cuts and lack of consultation.

The 27 members of the Mni Sose Water Rights Coalition for the Missouri Basin emphasized to federal officials that that tribal water rights are a trust responsibility of the federal government.

The 10th annual board of directors meeting served as a warm-up to the region's consultation meeting with top BIA officials over plans to reorganize the Bureau and spin off management of trust assets. The Mni Sose meeting was moved to Rapid City from Lawrence, Kan., so tribal leaders could strategize in advance of the Jan. 10 meeting with BIA chief Neal McCaleb and Deputy Assistant Secretary Wayne Smith.

The consultation process is suspect with the tribal leaders at most every level. Woody Corbine, interim executive director of Mni Sose, gave as an example the Master Manual developed by the Army Corps of Engineers for water usage and power on the Missouri River. He said the Master Manual indicated that five tribes were consulted yet didn't mention which tribes. Most of the tribes are members of Mni Sose.

"We expect a give and take, not a come in and tell us what they are going to do," he said.

A quick poll of the tribal members at the Mni Sose meeting found no support for the reorganization plan proposed by Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Ross Swimmer, former head of the BIA in the Reagan administration, will head the new office and many tribal officials at the meeting questioned his appointment.

The meeting also focused on budget cuts following the 9-11 disaster. Gary Collins, president of Mni Sose, said that on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming the rivers are running low and there is "barely enough water for homes and fire protection."

Mni Sose and its members provide research data and exchange information to maintain and improve quality water and power in a protected environment. Many of the tribes in the Missouri Basin retained the water rights over the years through their treaties.

"We still have the duty to protect our environment for the future generations. Funding will be an important factor," said Corbine.

He said the tribes of the Missouri River Basin see a strong connection between energy and water. He said it took 10 years for Mni Sose to negotiate a four percent power diversion to the tribes from the Western Area Power Authority (WAPA), which distributes power from the hydro-electric dams on the Missouri River.

"(WAPA) is now calling for new customers and Western wants to cut back some of the four percent we won," he said. "There are other ways to get energy out of here, fossil fuels and wind if we can get the transmission lines out to the reservations."

While funding is vastly important to the intertribal organization, Jeffrey Loman, chief of the Natural Resources Division of the BIA's Office of Trust Responsibilities, said his department was "strapped for resources and personnel.

"The Agriculture and Ranch Branch has no one in that branch today. Irrigation Projects has one person with a small budget," he said.

Loman's department now consists of seven members, against 27 some 10 years ago.

Loman, a member of the Keweenaw Bay Band of Chippewa, said as he represents the trustee for natural resources he will work for the tribes and make recommendations to Interior.

He answered complaints about the apparent futility of consultations by saying "with insurmountable problems and overwhelming opposition it would mean a change."

"I would like to say it will not get any worse. The changes don't change the trustee's responsibility to the tribes; there have to be some basic qualities. The one thing the trustee must have is loyalty to the beneficiaries," he said.

Loman also faced questions about his knowledge of Mni Sose and his loyalty to the tribes, because of a letter he had written in response to a memo. Members of the coalition charged that the letter presented a negative image of Mni Sose and implied a cut in funding to the organization.

"We had 300 requests from 175 tribes for funding and 136 projects were not funded. Tribes were asking for $50 million but there was a big shortfall, that's why we can't fully fund Mni Sose," Loman had written.

The cut in funding was a "slap in the face," Mni Sose board members said.

Loman promised to devote himself to defending tribal interests. "But nothing I can do will be enough. I will focus on doing a better job in Indian country," he said.

Mni Sose is the only tribal organization to receive a conservation award from the BIA for its work in water rights, power and environmental areas.