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The ink has run like a river torrent ever since the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Water Compact was introduced – and approved – in the previous legislative session.

Most of this ink has been spilled in service to explaining to Montana legislators, residents, farmers, ranchers and government officials the many various details of this complicated agreement. That’s only right, as clear understanding is essential to crafting good legislation.

However, a great deal has also been diverted to defending the compact from opponents who either don’t understand the point of the agreement, or who seek to derail this critical resolution of historic water rights and turn it into a condemnation of state, tribal or federal authority – or all three.

On May 26, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester stepped out of the stream for a moment in order to introduce the compact legislation into the Senate. Such was largely expected of the Montana senator who has repeatedly introduced water compacts for the Blackfeet, and Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes; he also sponsored the Crow water compact, which languished in Congress for more than a decade before finally being ratified in 2010. Tester deserves applause for being a steadfast supporter of these duly negotiated agreements, and for taking on yet another monumental piece of legislation.

That’s no exaggeration. The 1,400-page CSKT Water Compact, decades in the making, will cost some $2.3 billion. Although the vast majority of this will be spent on critical water infrastructure, the sheer amount is still a large lump for Congress to swallow. Compounding this is the fact that our country’s Congress is not known for acting with speed even when confronted with the simplest of commonsense bills. A highly detailed bill that affects such a small portion of the nation’s population is likely to fall ill with that most deadly of congressional diseases: indifference.

That’s why it is even more important that all three of Montana’s congressional delegates, who have expressed various degrees of support for the compact in the past, work together to keep this compact alive and to push for its successful passage – as well as Montana’s other outstanding water compacts. It is past time to wrap up the last of Montana’s seven tribal water compacts, and provide water rights holders throughout the state with the assurance they deserve that their rights will not be disputed as water becomes ever more valuable.

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The entire purpose of the compact is to provide that assurance by finally settling historic water rights on and off the Flathead Reservation. It also resolves the tribes’ water claims with both the state and with the federal government, avoiding immeasurable litigation costs.

The compact will allow drinking water and wastewater systems in the region to receive necessary upgrades, as well as irrigation and water infrastructure though the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project. It also establishes funds for the expansion of agriculture development, from livestock barriers to noxious weed control.

CSKT Tribal Chairman Vernon Finley says the infrastructure and restoration projects will combine to “create over 6,330 jobs and an economic impact of $52.9 million per year—providing a major boost to the economy while enhancing the region’s landscape and ecosystem.”

Further, Finley says, “This legislation also helps remedy some of the devastating impacts to our culture and children caused by failed federal policies relating to the water resources of the Tribes by supporting our cultural and educational programs.”

According to a description from Tester’s office, the compact will also:

• Establish the right for CSKT to develop and market any hydroelectric power generation projects within the Flathead Reservation

• Quantify CSKT’s allocation of water rights and usage for the Hungry Horse Reservoir

• Protect the water rights and allocation for existing on-reservation irrigation users

• Provide for water leasing allocations off of the Flathead Reservation

• Protect fishing habitats by establishing CSKT and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks as co-owners for existing off-reservation basins

• Establish the Unitary Administration and Management Ordinance and Water Management Board to administer water rights on the Flathead Reservation

For these reasons and others, the compact has earned strong bipartisan support throughout Montana. Sen. Chas Vincent, a Libby Republican, introduced the bill into the 2015 Legislature and deserves the credit for educating legislators on the particulars of Senate Bill 262.

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The compact has bipartisan support outside the legislature as well, from the Montana Farmers Union and Montana Stockgrowers Association, local elected officials, tribal officials and conservation groups. Montana's Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock supports the compact, as does Montana's Republican Attorney General Tim Fox.

Now, Montana’s bipartisan congressional delegation must guide it through Congress.

Unfortunately, Congress has done a poor job of ratifying Montana’s previous tribal compacts. The first to test Congress, the compact for the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation, was passed by the Montana Legislature in 1985 and never ratified by Congress. It was allowed to take effect only because it was not attached to federal funding.

Congress has taken no action on the compact for Fort Belknap. The Blackfeet Water Compact sponsored by Tester was approved by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and will hopefully receive a floor vote some time before the next decade. Meanwhile, the House Natural Resource Committee, of which U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke is a member, has gone so far as to hold a hearing on the Blackfeet compact.

Technically, if a compact is not ratified within four years of the governor’s signing, it may be withdrawn. That may be exactly what opponents of the CSKT Water Compact hoping for.

Zinke, Tester and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines must not allow the passage of time and the leaky dam of Congress to endanger the hard work, countless hours and expert involvement that went into this water compact. Ultimately, it’s really not that complicated. 

Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Acting Editor Darrell Ehrlick, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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