Havre Daily News
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - Rocky Boy tribal officials and their guests Thursday celebrated the enlargement of Bonneau Dam, the first tangible result of a water compact signed six years ago that settled the tribe's water rights.
The $10 million enlargement of Bonneau, which began in 2003, is the biggest of four reservoir expansions the tribe will complete over the next few years with the $24 million provided in the water settlement.
The dam is slowly being filled to hold 4,000 acre-feet of water, up from its previous 1,000 acre-foot capacity.
Bonneau Dam is nearing completion at about $3 million under budget.
Improvements to Bonneau, East Fork, Brown's and Towe dams will more than triple the amount of irrigated land at Rocky Boy, from 600 acres to 2,000 acres, and expand recreational opportunities on the reservation, water resources director Jim Morsette said.
Recreation began Thursday when Bonneau was the site for a celebration and luncheon atop the 100-foot earth structure, and then, in the reservoir below, host to the canoeing stretch of a three-part running, riding andpaddling race.
Special thanks and gifts went out to the state and federal partners who helped negotiate the water compact, as well as thanks to the tribal leaders who represented the Chippewa Cree Tribe at the time. Prayers of thanks were also spoken in Cree.
"We carried through the vision that our elders had, that our forefathers had," Morsette said after the prayers.
In speeches that followed, some recalled the nearly 10 years of water compact negotiations, while others remembered the planning work that could only begin once the settlement was complete.
"This began as a dream for your tribal leaders," Bureau of Indian Affairs regional director Keith Beartusk told the roughly 50 people who gathered for the celebration, adding that the tribe had successfully stepped into the role of the federal government when it began executing the Bonneau project.
"I'm fortunate to be the one on the subcommittee when this process started," tribal council vice chair Bruce Sun Child said Thursday, while mentioning the challenges and long hours of negotiations.
Susan Cottingham, director of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, recalled the oftentimes tense negotations that began in the early 1990s.
"There was a lot of fear on both sides," Cottingham said. "There were a lot of naysayers from the federal perspective."
Cottingham said all the different groups had successfully been brought together and finally agreed.
"This is proof that self-determination works if you apply it right," council member Raymond "Jake" Parker said.
Tribal officials hope that the dam expansions will be another driving force for economic development.
In the short term, that has already been the case, Parker said. The Chippewa Cree Construction Company was formed in 2003 to build the dam.
"They came as trainees, and I'd put them up against any operators now," Parker said of the company's employees.
The increased irrigation capacity should also mean more productivity on Dry Fork Farms, the tribe's farming operation.
"That's been our whole plan all along is to take advantage of the Bonneau Dam enhancement and Brown's Dam enhancement to expand our irrigation," Tony Belcourt, a water resources employee, said in an interview this week.
Belcourt was a tribal council member during the negotiation process and is overseeing several projects for water resources, including coordination of the Rocky Boy's/North Central Montana Regional Water Project. In its water compact, Rocky Boy received the rights to 10,000 acre-feet each year from Lake Elwell.
When that project is complete, water will be carried from a treatment plant there to Rocky Boy users and to other north-central Montana communities.
An optimistic estimate puts that project complete, for Rocky Boy users, in about seven years, Morsette said.
It can't come too soon, he added, because drinking water is obtained through ground sources, which are quickly being depleted.
"Before we have a crisis we need to get the drinking water here," Morsette said. Most summers, the tribe rations drinking water.