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Reno Diversion headgate

Officials of the Crow Tribe gather for a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Reno Diversion headgate on the Little Bighorn River.

GARRYOWEN — Tribal leaders gathered Monday morning on the banks of the Little Bighorn River near here to launch a new chapter in the storied history of Crow Country.

They broke ground on the first phase of what is expected to be a complete overhaul of the 320-mile reservation irrigation system, some of which is more than 100 years old.

Funding for the work comes from a water rights bill approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in late 2010. The Claims Settlement Act of 2010 contained $1 billion to settle water rights with various tribes. The Crow Tribe got the biggest chunk — $461 million.

As soon as the Bureau of Indian Affairs shuts down irrigation on Oct. 4, Crow workers will begin tearing out the headgate that diverts water from the Little Horn into the Reno Canal. In about two months’ time, it will be replaced with a modern and efficient headgate that will increase capacity and improve safety for maintenance crews.

“You’ll never forget this day,” Alden Big Man Jr. told construction workers and a small crowd of onlookers during ceremonies near the headgate. “They will always remember it as a turning point in Crow history.”

Big Man, who holds a doctorate in history and is director of the Crow Tribe’s Water Resources Office, said that it is another of many transitions the Crow Tribe has made since the move began to place tribes on reservations in the 1850s. But this time, he said, the tribe has a chance to complete the vision of its late 19th and early 20th century leaders, who foresaw agriculture as an important part of the tribe’s future.

Thanks to a compact signed by the Crow, the state of Montana and the Department of Interior, the tribe will control its water projects with technical assistance of the Bureau of Reclamation.

“It’s an exciting time,” Big Man said. “We will begin to retake the reservation piece by piece and utilize it. These are opportunities given back to us.”

“It’s an opportunity for them (Bureau of Reclamation) to take a break and us to move forward,” Crow Chairman Cedric Black Eagle said. “Just two short years ago, we were prowling the halls of Congress to get our legislation passed.”

The odds of success, given the belt-tightening mood of Congress, were slim, he said. But perseverance paid off, and Black Eagle was quietly proud of the achievement at the groundbreaking.

“This is the first of hundreds of millions of dollars to go to work for the Crow Nation,” he said.

Of the total settlement, $132 million will be spent refurbishing irrigation systems on the 2.3 million-acre reservation. The rest will be spent on providing water for industrial use and clean water to every home on the reservation, said Doug Davis, representing BuRec.

That will include building a water plant in the Afterbay below Yellowtail Dam and pipelines to spread the water to all reservation communities.

“The money is there,” Davis said. “We’re focused on rapid completion of these projects.”

All the work will be coordinated by the Crow Tribe Water Resources Office.

The Reno Canal headgate is one of 2,300 irrigation structures on the reservation, said Karl Helvick, BIA regional irrigation engineer. Helvick served as the Crow project manager for the BIA until the tribe took control.

He said the Reno Canal traverses 8.3 miles of the reservation ending near Crow Agency. Its capacity is 85 cubic feet of water per second. The canal was originally designed to irrigate 3,022 acres, Helvick said. But that may not be the actual amount under irrigation now.

Big Man said that in addition to existing systems, the tribe is taking a look at opening other lands for irrigation. His office is studying the feasibility of irrigation near Dunmore and possibly the Pryor area. But cost analysis must be completed to see if expansion makes sense, he said.

Although Big Man credited Black Eagle with pushing the settlement through to the end, the chairman shared credit with predecessors Clara Nomee and Clifford Bird In Ground.

Discussion of a water compact began in the mid 1970s when the state initiated a process of establishing water rights throughout Montana. Part of the process was negotiating compacts with each of the tribes.

“It was moving, but it was moving real slow,” Black Eagle said of the winding road to a compact.

“It was a very long, hard struggle,” said Joe Pickett, former tribal vice chairman under Nomee.

The settlement has not been unanimously popular on the reservation and many still object. But in a referendum March 11, the compact was approved by 72 percent of the tribe’s voting members.

The Montana Legislature approved the compact in a special session called in June 1999.

Tribal attorney Heather Whiteman Runs Him said the water projects represent a change in pattern for the tribe. The Crow have received many settlements before, she said, but their economic effects were limited. The tribe’s land base continued to be jeopardy as real estate was sold to non-Crows. By investing in water projects, the tribe is investing in its future and taking positive steps to secure its land base, she said.

“This is the best possible outcome,” Black Eagle said.