By John S. Adams, Montana Free Press
An agreement between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and the federal government over long-disputed water rights took a major step forward December 5 when Montana Senator Steve Daines said he plans to introduce a bill that would implement a new settlement framework.
“Today is a really important step. We’ve reached a historic compromise on a century-old dispute that protects the water rights of all Montanans,” Daines said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. “We’ve reached a new agreement that addressed my concerns, that addressed those of many others in the agriculture community and attempts to address the concerns of some of those who have been opposed to the compact.”
The announcement comes on the heels of two Trump administration officials recently signaling their support for the proposed CSKT-Montana compact, which the Montana Legislature passed in 2015. The compact would resolve water rights claims between the tribes and other water users on and off the Flathead Indian Reservation and reconcile Montana’s modern water doctrine with fishing rights guaranteed to the tribes as part of the 1855 Hellgate Treaty.
The bill Daines said he will introduce next week would, if passed by Congress, ratify the state compact and settle remaining water disputes between the tribes and the federal government. It would also include $1.9 billion to settle federal damage claims and to rehabilitate the deteriorating Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, which supplies irrigation to approximately 127,000 acres of agricultural land.
According to details of the proposed legislation provided by Daines’ office, the measure would also provide $10 million in road infrastructure funds to Lake and Sanders counties. Under the legislation, the tribes would relinquish the bulk of their off-reservation water right claims and be prohibited from selling water out of state.
“These negotiations have been hard. They’ve been tough negotiations,” Daines said. “I very much appreciate the concessions the tribe has been willing to make.”
The legislation would provide stability and certainty for thousands of water rights in Montana for the first time in state history, according to a statement from the tribes. Top tribal officials said they have begun reviewing the proposed bill and found it acceptable.
“This will work and get the job done,” CSKT Chairman Ronald Trahan said in a statement. “This bill will ensure the protection of vital resources while seeing to the needs of the greater community. The tribes on this reservation have worked hard to be good neighbors and sometimes that means making tough decisions which serve the entire community.”
While the text of the forthcoming Montana Water Rights Protection Act is not yet available, Daines said the bill will save taxpayers $400 million over a previous proposal brought in 2016 by Senator Jon Tester. That measure contained $2.3 billion for damages and restoration. Daines did not support that bill and it died in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Daines said he hopes to get bipartisan support for his new proposal.
“I’m hoping Senator Tester will support it. We’ll be talking to his folks next week,” Daines said.
Recent negotiations got a boost last month when U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, in a November 18 letter to Daines, dismissed the concerns of the settlement’s opponents, stating that those concerns had been addressed during the lengthy negotiating process.
Then, during a November 22 visit to Montana, Attorney General William Barr said it was better to resolve Montana’s last remaining Indian water rights settlement through the existing negotiating process, and not in the courts.
State Representative Kerry White (R-Bozeman) an outspoken opponent of the CSKT-Montana compact in the state Legislature, said he is optimistic about Daines’ proposed bill.
“I haven’t seen the specific legislation, but I’m very encouraged with what Senator Daines has been able to accomplish with further negotiations with the tribes,” White said.
White said he is especially pleased with provisions that would require the tribes to relinquish off-reservation water rights and allow for future disputes to be handled in state district courts rather than federal courts.
“All of these points I’ve seen through these negotiations, I’m just very encouraged and impressed with Senator Daines and his efforts to resolve this very divisive issue,” White said.BACK