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Water rights supported before Congress

WASHINGTON – A pair of tribal water rights settlements received renewed attention from Congress just before its break for summer recess.

“They are not the most exciting issues around. … but they are very important in the life of tribal governments,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, at a July 22 hearing on two bills, S.2956, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians Water Rights Settlement Act; and S.3290, the Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act of 2010.

Testifying in support of the legislation that impacts his tribe, Pechanga Chairman Mark Macarro said the bill would settle longstanding tribal claims to waters of the Santa Margarita River Watershed.

Macarro said the bill has been over two decades in the making, and he believes after meeting with Obama administration officials that a deal can soon be made. He said cost of the plan was a concern for the White House.

A 1951 federal court case spawned disagreements over the tribe’s water rights in the region, which has caused some problems of scope over the years. Agreements have been struck with localities during that time, but permanent solutions have not been found.

The agreement would provide 75 percent of the groundwater in the area to the tribe. It also extends a variety of previous agreements.

“All of the elements of the settlement were crafted to create a settlement that was beneficial to all parties involved,” Macarro said, adding that the federal government must honor its trust responsibility.

The chairman noted that the agreement is similar in some respects to some recent tribal water settlements.

Matt Stone, general manager of the Rancho California Water District, also testified in favor of the bill, saying it would “significantly improve the reliability and quality of local water supplies for RCWD and Pechanga.” He called the proposal compromise among the parties that could be beneficial to both.

Stone noted that a companion bill in the House had six co-sponsors at the time of the hearing.

Shannon Augare, a tribal business councilman with the Blackfeet Nation, next testified in favor of the bill affecting his tribe.

“The Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement is the culmination of over two decades of work by the tribe and many other people, including those who are testifying here today. It represents a historical breakthrough in the tribe’s over century long battle to secure and protect its waters rights. S.3290 ratifies the Blackfeet-Montana Water Rights Compact, resolves significant water related claims against the federal government, and most importantly establishes the critical infrastructure needed for the development of a self-sustaining economy on the Blackfeet Reservation and a permanent homeland for the Blackfeet people.”

Facing questions from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Augare said the tribe was supportive of certain non-Indian mitigation provisions of the bill, so long as the provisions do not delay it.

Jay Weiner, assistant attorney general of the Montana Water Rights Compact Commission, testified on behalf of Chris Tweeten, the chairman of the commission, as well as the state of Montana and Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, in support of the bill.

John Bloomquist, a lawyer for the Pondera County Canal and Reservoir Company, said the bill was “critical” to the company and to “a very large region of north-central Montana.” Under provisions supported by the company, mitigation funds would be provided to non-Indian water users.

Some Obama administration officials have questioned federal funding for such provisions, Bloomquist indicated.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he was pleased to see a variety of interests supporting his legislation.