The debate over the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact has at long last received the necessary legislative stamp of approval and can proceed to the U.S. Congress.
Where, if history is any indication, it may face another unnecessarily lengthy wait.
Montana's congressional delegation ought to push hard to make sure that doesn't happen. U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke must commit to working together to get this compact - and other overdue agreements - past the federal finish line.
The CSKT Water Compact that was approved by the Montana House on its third reading last week is the state's seventh tribal compact. The compact terms spelled out in Senate Bill 262 are rather lengthy and complex, but in a nutshell they seek to settle historic water rights on and off the Flathead Reservation. Sen. Chas Vincent, a Republican from Libby who introduced the bill, has done a champion job of explaining the bill's details to legislators. His efforts helped earn it the bipartisan support needed to pass a final House vote, 53-47.
The compact has bipartisan support outside the legislature as well, which is critical because after Montana's Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock signs the bill, Montana's Republican Attorney General Tim Fox must begin negotiations involving the state's one Democratic U.S. senator and two Republican members of Congress, representatives from the U.S. departments of Justice and Interior, as well as tribal authorities, in order to pin down the amount of federal funds needed to support the compact.
Then our congressional delegates must take this agreement to Congress.
In the past, Congress has not exactly acted swiftly to ratify Montana's six previous tribal compacts. Indeed, the very first one, concerning the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation, was never ratified despite the fact that it was approved by the Montana Legislature in 1985. However, that compact was allowed to take effect without congressional approval because it contained no federal funding.
Such wasn't the case with the Crow Tribe's water compact, which languished in Congress for more than a decade before it was attached to - and passed along with - the Claims Resolution Act of 2010.
That same year the Blackfeet Tribe's compact was introduced in Congress. Nothing has happened since, despite Tester's repeated efforts to advance it, as well as the compact for the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes of the Fort Belknap Reservation.
Now Tester appears poised to support the CSKT Water Compact. Fortunately, Daines seems equally eager to move the CSKT and Blackfeet compacts through Congress. However, Zinke's support is far less clear, and his backing is essential in the House.
The CKST Water Compact is the product of more than three decades of negotiations. It has been introduced - and pushed off - in two previous legislative sessions. Now that is has the legislature's approval at last, the work must continue to see it through to completion. Remember, even after Congress approves it, the compact will return again to the tribes and to the Montana Water Court.
The clock is ticking. Once Bullock signs the bill, Congress must approve the compact within four years or the whole agreement may be withdrawn.
We call on our congressional delegates to work together and get this compact through Congress well before then.