Blackfeet water negotiations expected to resume

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) 4-07

Days after Blackfeet tribal leaders walked out of water rights talks with the state, a tribal representative says he expects negotiations to resume.

``I believe we'll be back at the negotiations table shortly,'' said Don Wilson, the tribe's water representative. ``That's the hope.''

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 acre feet of water flow annually.

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

Wilson and the rest of the Blackfeet team walked out of a meeting on the issue in Helena Thursday, but Wilson said the tribe will continue to ``aggressively'' pursue a water compact with the state.

The walkout followed tension about pending federal legislation by Sen. Max Baucus, DMont., that would authorize $140 million dollars to repair the aging St. Mary Canal. A Senate committee approved it last month, but the bill hasn't been heard by the full Senate.

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

Tribal officials were upset that they hadn't been consulted about the bill, and said they were assured by then Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-New Mexico, last summer that the canal fixes wouldn't precede settlement of tribal water rights.

The legislation, they said, made construction appear imminent, although Baucus officials have said the project has a long way to go.

Wilson likened the move to digging a hole for a swimming pool in a neighbor's backyard without telling the neighbor.

But he said the tribe remains committed to reaching a pact this year. No further negotiations sessions have been scheduled.

``The clock is ticking very rapidly,'' said Jay Weiner, a staff attorney for the state negotiating team.

The sides are trying to settle on a pact before the Legislature adjourns April 27. A bill ratifying the compact is nearing final approval in the Senate, and contains about $15 million to soften the agreement's impact on junior water rights holders downstream.

Congress must also ratify the agreement. At that time, federal lawmakers would likely consider a multimillion dollar federal funding package for the tribe to develop its newly quantified water rights.