Bullock Signs Water Compact - 2015

Gov. Steve Bullock, joined by bill sponsor Sen. Chas Vincent, Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, left, and Tribal Chair Vernon Finley, right, signs SB262, the water use agreement among the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state and federal governments, into law in 2015.

U.S Sen. Steve Daines announced Thursday he is preparing to introduce legislation that would ratify the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' water compact.

A spokesman for U.S. Senator Jon Tester, who introduced an unsuccessful ratification bill in 2016, said the Democrat plans to immediately sign onto the bill as an original cosponsor.

The compact is a sweeping agreement that would quantify the tribes’ water rights on and off the Flathead Indian Reservation. Meant to avert decades of litigation over those rights, it was crafted through years of negotiation, passed the state legislature in 2015 and now awaits federal and tribal ratification.

In a news release, Daines, a Republican, said his bill would “permanently eliminate almost all of CSKT’s water claim rights across Montana with prejudice, save taxpayers over $400 million, and give all water users across Montana protection and certainty.”

The proposed legislation has the backing of the Tribes themselves.

“This will work and get the job done,” said CSKT Chairman Ronald Trahan in a statement provided by spokesperson Rob McDonald. “This bill will ensure the protection of vital resources while seeing to the needs of the greater community.”

If the compact is ratified, the tribes would receive 211 on-reservation water rights, 10 off-reservation rights, and co-ownership of 58 more off-reservation rights. As part of this ratification agreement, the tribes agreed to give up 29 other off-reservation water rights in the Flathead watershed that they previously would have co-owned.

The Salish and Kootenai Tribes are the only ones in Montana whose treaty guarantees these off-reservation rights, and their inclusion has been fiercely criticized. But Montana’s senators are now preparing to bring the compact to Congress for ratification.

Daines announced the legislation in a press release Thursday. While the text hasn’t yet been released, his release stated that this bill, the “Montana Water Rights Protection Act,” would, among other provisions, provide CSKT with $1.9 billion to settle damages and rehabilitate the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, and Lake and Sanders Counties with $10 million for road infrastructure. A previous ratification bill introduced by Tester would have included $2.3 billion in settlement funds.

While the tribes would receive whole or partial ownership of 308 water rights under the compact, without it they and the U.S. Justice Department would have to pursue 10,000 claims in Montana Water Court — an adjudication process that could take decades.

Daines plans to introduce the bill next week. While his press release did not mention the compact by name, calling it a "framework for a permanent water settlement," Tester separately stated that "It’s critical we get the CSKT Compact introduced and moving so we can provide certainty for all water users and boost economic development in Northwest Montana.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, meanwhile, stated that “the compact that passed the state legislature has problems that must be addressed in any settlement. The framework announced today is a positive step toward addressing many of those issues."

Both Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and U.S. Attorney General William Barr also recently voiced support for the compact.

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