Blackfeet representatives walk out of water rights negotiations 4-13-07

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Blackfeet tribal leaders, disturbed by the wording of federal legislation that would authorize $140 million to repair the St. Mary Canal, walked out of a negotiations session over tribal water rights here Thursday.

The tribe and the state are negotiating rights to flows from the St. Mary, Two Medicine and Milk rivers and Birch, Badger and Cut Bank creeks, which together produce about 1.5 million acrefeet of water flow annually.

The St. Mary River originates on the Blackfeet Reservation. A 90yearold series of pipes and canals diverts water to the North Fork of the Milk River, supplying HiLine irrigators with water.

``When they got to St. Mary's River, it pretty much blowed up right there,'' said Bob Sill, a board member of the Pondera County Canal and Reservoir Co.

Chris Tweeten, chairman of the state's Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, said tribal leaders were ``extremely upset'' with the content of recent federal legislation regarding restoration of the St. Mary Canal.

Sen. Max Baucus, DMont., attached language to the Water Resources Development Act that would authorize $140 million in federal spending on the St. Mary project. A Senate committee approved it last month, but the bill hasn't been heard by the full Senate.

Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Earl Old Person said the tribe received assurances last summer from thenSen. Conrad Burns, RMont., and Sen. Pete Domenici, RNew Mexico, that construction would not begin until the tribal water rights were settled. Domenici is the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

``According to this bill that was introduced (by Baucus), that's what they're leading up to, that there's going to be construction,'' Old Person said.

Baucus spokesman Barrett Kaiser said the senator had a ``very cordial conversation'' with Old Person later Thursday.

Kaiser said Baucus encourages the state and tribe to resume negotiations toward an agreement on the compact, which requires approval by the Montana Legislature and Congress.

Kaiser said there is plenty of time to work separately on the money, because funding on the project ``has a long way to go.''

Old Person said Baucus told him the St. Mary's funding bill would not go forward if the tribe did not support it.

``We need something in writing,'' Old Person said. He said the tribe's attorney was to contact Baucus' office Friday.

The negotiations between the tribe and the state involve quantifying the tribe's water rights while trying to limit the impact development of those rights would have on downstream users.