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Tribes seek seat on State Water Commission: Native American leaders also appeal to North Dakota lawmakers for access to water project grants

BISMARCK — Native American leaders appealed to North Dakota lawmakers Thursday for a seat on the State Water Commission and access to its water project grants to address the lack of quality drinking water on reservations.

Mark Fox, director of water development for the Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota, said tribal members were “very distraught” after recently learning their $2 million request for a pipeline project to serve Twin Buttes wasn’t eligible for grant funding.

But what really stings, Fox told the Legislature’s interim Tribal and State Relations Committee, is that the state has collected more than $500 million in tax revenue from oil wells on the reservation.

“The money that the state is getting, (the state) doesn’t seem to want to reinvest it back directly to the tribes, and so it’s a huge issue for us,” said Fox, who is also the tribes’ tax director.

State lawmakers last year appropriated a record $515 million for water supply, flood control and irrigation projects for 2013-15 through the State Water Commission.

Michelle Klose, an assistant state engineer for the commission, said North Dakota’s reservations have “tremendous needs” for quality drinking water.

The commission provides cost-share grants for water projects through its Resources Trust Fund, which had more than $429 million as of last month.

The grants are available to political subdivisions such as cities, counties and townships, as well as rural water systems, but not to tribal nations, which are considered sovereign and have different rules and regulations, said Klose, who formerly worked for the federal Bureau of Reclamation on water projects on reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota.

To benefit from the grants, tribes must partner with a political subdivision or federal agency, Klose said. Tribes may build and operate their own water systems, but they’re limited by the availability of federal funding, which has dwindled in recent years, she said.

Fox said the current state policy makes “a big, bold assumption” that cities will cooperate with tribes in areas where drinking water projects are needed.

“If they choose to say, ‘No, no thank you, don’t feel like doing it,’ the door is shut on us,” he said.

With the tribes’ water resources under increasing pressure from oil development and the state issuing permits to draw from the Little Missouri River, Fox said he believes it’s time to have a tribal representative on the State Water Commission.

“If they’re going to make decisions that impact our water, if they’re going to rely on us to try to combat against the federal government on usage of the Missouri River itself, it would really behoove all of us if the tribes had a role,” he said.

Under state law, the water commission must consist of the governor, state agriculture commissioner and seven other members appointed to six-year terms by the governor, who must take into account “reasonable geographic considerations” when making his appointments.

Fox said tribal officials have had informal discussions with Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s staff about appointing a tribal representative. He said if the governor won’t appoint a tribal representative, it perhaps should be mandated through legislation.

Dalrymple said through spokesman Jeff Zent that a tribal member would be eligible for appointment, and he’s open to the idea.

“They could certainly apply,” Zent said.

Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, which is chaired by Dalrymple and works to improve tribal-state relations, said having a tribal representative on the water commission is “very, very important” and will be a top agenda item when the Indian Affairs Commission meets this summer.

“Water is just going to get more contentious in the future,” he said.

Reach Mike Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.