CROW AGENCY — The old saw holds that whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fightin’ over.
But in the heart of Crow country, 35 years of fighting gave way to celebrating this week.
In June the historic Crow Tribe Water Rights Settlement went into full effect, setting for the first time how much water the tribe owns under its treaty and giving the tribe $460 million to develop irrigation facilities, a hydropower energy plant and a reservation-wide municipal water system.
On Wednesday the tribe hosted a parade, horse races and an open-to-all feast to mark the end of the battle.
“Today is a historic day. This day has been decades in the making,” said Crow Tribe Chairman Darrin Old Coyote on a warm afternoon from a dais packed with a who’s-who of state and federal officials.
Gov. Steve Bullock was there. So was U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a key architect of the settlement. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López and a handful of Interior Department administrators flew in from Washington, D.C. A few blocks away, a family selling grilled beef kidney on a stick, $5 a pop, was doing brisk business.
The settlement caps an odyssey that started in the 1960s, as the tribe was fighting for fishing rights. “We discovered,” said tribal member Robert Old Horn, “that we had no water rights.”
In 1974, a year after Old Coyote was born, the tribe sued. In the mid-1980s, settlement talks with the state began. In 1999, when Tester was in the state Legislature, the state ratified the compact. A decade later, Tester, then a U.S. senator, ushered the compact through Congress.
For that effort, the tribe gave Tester a silver bolo tie as he took to the stage Wednesday. He wasted no time putting it on. “This Crow water settlement gives certainty to the Crow people,” Tester said. “It’s an important piece of the puzzle, living up to our trust responsibility and doing what’s right for the people.”
The settlement gives the tribe rights to 300,000 acre-feet of water in the Bighorn Lake—enough water to cover the city of Billings to a depth of 11 feet. It also gives the tribe exclusive rights to hydropower from the Yellowtail Dam, plus $20 million to develop a hydropower plant. Designs for that plant, López said, should be done by June 2017.
Another $132 million will rehabilitate irrigation projects across the 2.2-million-acre reservation, the largest in Montana. And—crucially—$264 million will go toward design and construction of a municipal water system bringing clean water for the first time to several communities across the reservation via a new, 720-mile network of pipes.
“This is the beginning of a different future, a future where the Crow people take charge of securing your water,” Bullock said. “Not only are the water rights finalized, but you have a means to put your water rights to use.”
At its core, several speakers said, the settlement is a victory for environmental and social justice on the reservation.
“Without water there is no quality of life,” Tester said. “Without water there is no economic development. Without water, there is no future.”
Most homes on the reservation are on well water and coping with poor or even unhealthy water: Fecal coliform, from either ranching or old septic systems—researchers can’t say for sure—taints Chief Plenty Coups Spring, a culturally important spring in Pryor. Nitrates, uranium, iron and other minerals contaminate wells.
“Our well water has a lot of iron and sodium,” Old Horn said. “Untreated, it eats up your plumbing, turns all your bathroom fixtures brown.”
Almost 30 percent of adults in Big Horn County, which covers the reservation, live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census. Few can afford filtration systems, Old Horn said. “If you don’t have a water treatment system, you can’t really do your laundry. … It turns your laundry brown.”
“A water system will provide good, clean, treated water. That will be a blessing for all homeowners.”
Douglas Fischer is the Bozeman-based director of Environmental Health Sciences, nonprofit publisher of the news websites EHN.org and DailyClimate.org. This story is part of a partnership between EHS and Last Best News looking at environmental justice on Indian Country in Montana.