Residents of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the city of Prior Lake are drinking the same water after opening a $22.5 million treatment plant, an unusual collaboration that shows how their relationship has improved from fraught to friendly.

“The tribe is the best friend the city of Prior Lake has,” Mayor Kirt Briggs said. “Great collaborator, great partner.”

“We are talking to each other and educating each other,” said Tribal Chairman Charles Vig. “I don’t think that has always happened in the past.”

The SMSC, which has 4,400 acres of land in the south metro and runs the successful Mystic Lake Casino, has worked with local governments on a variety of endeavors. But partnering on a project the size and scope of a water treatment plant is still uncommon.

Water demands are growing along with their communities, Vig said, so it made sense to unite on the South Area Water Treatment Plant, on SMSC land near the tribe’s sport and fitness facility. The Prior Lake City Council and the SMSC agreed in 2017 to build the plant.

The collaboration, officials said, saved Prior Lake about $7 million and the SMSC about $4 million. The tribe paid for most of the cost up front. City officials calculated Prior Lake’s share at about $10 million, including $1.5 million to install a pipe bringing water to the plant and about $2.2 million for two filter cells.

The plant daily provides up to 2.2 million gallons of water to Prior Lake; eventually, the plant will deliver up to 2.5 million gallons daily to the SMSC. It removes iron and manganese and also softens the water headed to tribal properties via reverse osmosis. There’s room for the city to expand water treatment in the future.

The tribe began operating the plant in late September. The contract between the parties has no end date, and both must agree to terminate it.

“We have effectively knitted our communities together,” Briggs said. “This is an agreement that lives in perpetuity.”

Shakopee Mayor Bill Mars said he’s also noticed positive changes. He mentioned the SMSC’s help with trail and bridge projects and future plans for cooperation.

“I think this collaboration [with Prior Lake] ... speaks volumes about their relationship,” said Mars. “Twenty years ago, it wasn’t this way.”

Rarer than it should be

Dave Unmacht, the League of Minnesota Cities’ executive director and former administrator for both Prior Lake and Scott County, said that there was no real relationship between the Mdewakanton Sioux tribe and nearby cities or counties during the 1980s and early ’90s because they had little to discuss. As time went on, the issue of the tribe placing local acreage into trust “created tension,” he said.

Under a federal law dating back to the 1930s, a tribe may purchase land and request that the federal government place it into trust to ensure the tribe can keep it forever, tax-free. The SMSC continues to put property into trust, including 52 acres in the past year, because land is essential “to secure the advantages of self-government” for tribal members, its website says.

Local concerns about trust land still exist, but legal disputes of the past have given way to a “tremendous” relationship in the past decade, said Lezlie Vermillion, Scott County administrator.

Part of it is growing trust and communication, Unmacht said. Leadership also has played a role, with Vig taking over as tribal chairman in 2012. Those factors have helped form new relationships, Unmacht said, leading to a track record that includes over 70 different agreements between the tribe and local governments.

Prior Lake, for instance, provides police services for the SMSC, while the tribe provides surrounding cities with fire and ambulance services. Vig attends monthly meetings of SCALE, a group of Scott County leaders who work together to solve community problems. The tribe loans tents to Prior Lake for the city’s annual festival.

And then there’s money: The tribe continues to give millions of dollars yearly to a wide range of local services and projects.

Despite making “extensive practical sense,” collaboration between tribes and local governments on infrastructure projects remains “less common than it should be,” said Joseph Bauerkemper, an American Indian Studies professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

“There’s not enough of it going on and there’s not enough knowledge about how it works and how it should work,” he said.

Some think that tribes, as sovereign nations, should engage only with the United States and not local governments. Some cities and counties don’t understand what sovereignty means, leading to distrust.

“There’s fear that there would be some kind of nondemocratic government authority that tribes would wield,” Bauerkemper said. “This is not something that neighboring cities and counties should be worried about, but it … sort of gets ginned up.”

The water treatment plant is a “teaching example” of how to join forces, he said.

An enduring legacy

Talks with the tribe about future water needs started four years ago in Prior Lake, Briggs said, when city officials realized that building both a new water tower and a water treatment plant would be too costly.

The city already had an agreement to buy water from the SMSC, and city officials knew the tribe needed a new treatment plant. But they had questions about timing and debated whether investing in a facility on tribal land made sense.

“There was also a question of, are we better off seeing to our own needs?” Briggs said.

Tribal and city officials began discussions a year later and completed a joint study on meeting the water needs of both. Along the way, challenges arose on the technical, financial and political aspects of the project, Briggs said.

“I’ve got to believe that those three things existed on the other side,” Briggs said. “If it were easy … someone would have done it before us.”

Cities may shy away from working with tribes because of regulation concerns, said SMSC tribal administrator Bill Rudnicki, since tribes are regulated not by the state but by the Indian Health Service and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Sovereign nations also can be reluctant to work with nearby cities, Vig said, though he added that the SMSC’s “uniqueness is being shoulder-to-shoulder … with our neighbors.”

Briggs said the plant “secures all of the city’s future water needs,” letting the city buy treated water “for cheaper than we could make it ourselves.” It will be the current City Council’s enduring legacy, he said.

The symbolism of sharing water wasn’t lost on either leader. Water is sacred to Dakota people, Vig said, and it’s their duty to protect it.

But, he added, it’s also about “being a good neighbor, try[ing] to grow that relationship with our surrounding neighbors. That’s the big picture thing.”