Chairman Marc Macarro of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, second from left seated, and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, third from left, sign a water rights settlement agreement at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., on November 29, 2017. Photo: DOI
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Pechanga Band celebrates execution of first water settlement in the Trump era

The first tribal water rights settlement of the Trump era has been executed by the Department of the Interior.

Though the settlement was ratified by Congress in 2016, before President Donald Trump took office, Secretary Ryan Zinke had the honor of finalizing the deal. He signed the agreement with Marc Macarro, the chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday afternoon.

“The federal government has a critical responsibility to uphold our trust responsibilities, especially tribal water rights,” Zinke said in a press release after the signing ceremony. “This is why we are continuing to work on Indian water settlements with tribes, states, and all water users to ensure there is certainty for all and an opportunity for economic development in local communities.”

“Generations of tribal leaders have fought from the courts to Capitol Hill to protect this vital resource for future generations,” added Macarro, alluding to the many years it took to secure the settlement. “This settlement agreement benefits all of the parties by securing adequate water supplies for the Pechanga Band and its members and encouraging cooperative water resources management among all of the parties.”

Zinke, who joined Trump's Cabinet in March, has direct experience in tribal water rights. As a member of Congress, he helped secure passage of a settlement for the Blackfeet Nation in his home state of Montana.

Both the Pechanga and Blackfeet settlements were included in S.612, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, also known as the WIIN Act. The bill became law in December 2016.

The Pechanga Band, though, fared better. The WIIN Act authorized $30 million in federal funding for water storage projects in southern California.

The Blackfeet Nation, on the other hand, has to go back to Congress to secure funding. Costs for water projects in Montana have been estimated at around $420 million -- far higher than the California deal.

The lack of appropriations speaks to the hurdles Zinke had to overcome when he was advocating for the Blackfeet settlement on Capitol Hill. Republican colleagues and government officials alike have balked at the high cost.

In his new position, Zinke is dealing with similar concerns. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources Committee, is once again insisting that he will only consider settlements that meet certain conditions, including financial ones.

"Because of growing federal debt and increased budgetary pressures from existing Indian water rights settlements, it is important that the proposed settlements, their proposed legislation and the federal costs associated with them be fiscally responsible and justified in order to protect the American taxpayer and future tribal needs," Bishop wrote in an April 27 letter to Secretary Zinke and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the leader of the Department of Justice, which is also involved in water rights negotiations.

So far in the 115th Congress, Bishop's committee has advanced S.140, which revises a previously-approved settlement for the White Mountain Apache Tribe in order to move forward with a critical water project on the reservation in Arizona. The bill was approved at a markup session on November 8. A hearing took place on November 2.

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Republican lawmaker with a better tribal record tapped for Interior Secretary (December 15, 2016)
National water bill offers a bunch of goodies for Indian Country (December 13, 2016)
Oklahoma tribes win approval of water deal without so much as a hearing in Congress (December 13, 2016)
House panel sets markup on Pechanga Band and Alaska Native bills (September 19, 2016)