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Questions over water fees: Issue arises in State of the Tribes address

BISMARCK -- Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall said the drawbacks to the state's oil boom outweigh the benefits and will remain so unless work is done to alleviate the difficulties on the reservation.

He also touched on the Army Corp of Engineers plan to charge for Lake Sakakawea water, reservation unemployment and low graduation rates for North Dakota Native Americans.

Hall gave the State of the Tribes address to state lawmakers Thursday. He said the ultimate goal should be to implement a comprehensive plan that includes all North Dakotans -- native and nonnative.

"One of my main concerns is that, as the state of North Dakota has prospered as a whole, our native populations have not, with limited overall economies and resources and a standard of living that lags far behind that of the average citizen of the state," he said in his written remarks.

Hall said the oil boom has hit the reservation like "a tsunami," and roads are in poor condition due to intense oil and gas traffic. There is not adequate funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the state or tribal funds to repair roads.

There are 87 active wells producing on the Fort Berthold Reservation with another 11 wells drilling and an additional 41 waiting on completion of a pipeline system, he said.

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation could increase revenue and protect the environment if it had infrastructure to collect natural gas from the well head to a pipeline, Hall said. Using a pipeline to transport oil would also reduce traffic and improve safety on roads.

The increasing population due to the oil boom has meant increases in crime, violence, drug trafficking, demand for housing and cost of living, Hall said in his written speech. There is also an increased and unreasonable demand on a law enforcement system with inadequate resources and jurisdictional concerns over nontribal members, he said.

Hall wants to see "a more equitable and effective agreement" with the state relating to the amount of money the tribe receives from oil tax revenue.

Hall also said the tribes would like to pursue an economic plan and policy with the state to help unemployment rates, which are as high as 70 percent in some native communities.

North Dakota tribes have the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the United States and in Indian Country, with a 50 percent unemployment rate and a 33 percent poverty level rate, he said.

"This is a huge waste of human capital," Hall said in his prepared remarks.

The MHA Nation plans to create a business development office on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Priorities include economic development efforts and the need for a comprehensive plan, he said.

Hall also discussed water issues, including urging the state to continue to support the study and development of a Fort Berthold irrigation project.

He commented on the Army Corp of Engineer's plan to charge North Dakotans for using water from Lake Sakakawea

"We stand with the state of North Dakota to oppose the corps," he said to loud applause.

During the corps' public meeting, Hall said the corps' plan would adversely affect and limit the ability to use water for tribal needs.

"Why would the corps charge us for our own water? It really befuddles me," he said.

As for education, Hall discussed the 57 percent graduation rate of Native American students. Hall wants to see a tribal and state task force developed to address Indian education.

He also would like to see an Indian Education Office within the state Department of Public Instruction and an increase in career and technical education funding.

Hall's speech wrapped up the week's major speeches, which began Tuesday with the State of the State.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.