By Alan Sorensen
ROCKY BOY -- It's done. After nearly 20 years of research and negotiations, President Bill Clinton signed Rocky Boy's reserved water rights compact agreement Friday.
The legislation, sponsored by all three members of Montana's congressional delegation, was passed by overwhelming votes in Congress last month. The compact is between the Chippewa Cree Tribe, state of Montana and U.S. government.
The compact process began in the early 1970s and jumped to the negotiation stage about eight years ago. It still requires ratification by the Montana Water Court. That process is expected to take a year and a half to two years to complete.
The agreement received approval by the tribe, both houses of the Montana Legislature and the governor in the spring of 1997.
"This settlement signals a turning point in the Chippewa Cree's history by setting the foundation for the realization of the Tribe's vision of the Rocky Boy's Reservation as a self-sustaining homeland for the Chippewa Cree people," tribal negotiating team chairman Bruce Sunchild said.
The agreement recognized the Tribe's need for enhanced water storage and infrastructure capacities in order to maintain its modest agricultural base. The Tribe also needs to meet the domestic water needs of its rapidly growing population.
The Department of the Interior led the negotiations for the federal government.
"This settlement was reached in the true spirit of cooperation," Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said. "It represents a strong partnership among federal, state, and tribal parties.
"Through a great deal of hard work, we have forged a settlement that satisfies tribal rights and needs, while also recognizing the rights and needs of non-Indians in the region."
Babbitt commended the federal team for its cooperative spirit and tireless efforts in reaching the settlement.
"In particular, I would like to thank Acting Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes for his strong, persistent leadership on this important matter."
Havre native Chris Tweeten, chairman of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, also applauded the settlement.
"This agreement brings certainty to an area in which water is the lifeblood of the economy," Tweeten said. "The real heroes are the people of Rocky Boy's Reservation and their neighboring ranchers who set aside years of mistrust to each this agreement, and in doing so, showed great courage, leadership, and compassion. The enactment of this settlement is a tribute to their efforts."
Under the agreement, the Tribe will be allowed to divert up to 10,000 acre-feet per year from surface and ground water sources on the reservation. The Tribe will have access to an additional 10,000 acre-feet per year from Lake Elwell, located about 50 miles off the reservation on the Marias River.
The legislation clears the way for $25 million in federal funding to develop water supplies, including the enlargement of some existing reservoirs, a $3 million economic development fund for the Tribe, and $15 million for future importation of drinking water.