U.S. Water News Online
RAPID CITY, S.D. -- Despite the fact that the nation's longest river courses its way through no less than a half dozen Indian reservations, tribal voices have been drowned out in the ongoing debate over the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' operating manual for the Missouri River. Nonetheless, the Missouri River Basin's Indian tribes continue to insist they have rights to full usage of the river and its federal reservoirs.
Tribes have the rights to use water from the mainstem Missouri River, its tributaries, and its aquifers, claimed Richard Bad Moccasin of the Mni Sose Tribal Water Rights Coalition in Rapid City. "The rights are not federal rights," asserted Bad Moccasin. "They are Indian rights, stemming from Indian possession and dominion since before the memory of man. They are vested rights. Neither the rights nor the measurement of the rights are limited to agriculture or viable fishery purposes, as suggested by the Corps."
Even though the Corps has concluded that the tribes are not entitled to storage allocations in the Missouri River reservoirs, said the tribal representative, "allocating some of the reservoirs' storage capacity for Indian purposes might be a physical solution for tribes when other means of preserving, protecting, and developing Indian water rights are impractical or are foreclosed."
The ongoing debate over operation of the Missouri River dams has largely been waged between upstream states, which are interested in more storage for recreation and tourism, and downstream states, which want increased flows for barge navigation and general commerce. "It's not surprising that the federal government has not been a strong advocate for Indian water rights," said Bad Moccasin, "since the U.S. depends on Indian water for generation of electricity at the dams, and since non-Indian water users throughout the semi-arid West also rely on water claimed by the tribes."
A potential mediator between the commission and the Corps is Oklahoma 4th District Congressman J.C. Watts, who was a standout football player at the University of Oklahoma before previously serving as a corporation commissioner. In a letter to other members of Oklahoma's congressional delegation, Watts has proposed "the concept of Congress appropriating federal funds" to address the problem. The funds would be placed in a subaccount of an existing Oklahoma oil well plugging fund to be used exclusively for plugging leaking wells on the property of the Corps of Engineers, Watts explains in the letter. The state corporation commission has voted to express support for Watts' proposal to try to secure federal funding.
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