New agreement reached on CSKT Water Compact

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Trip Burns/Lake County Leader The Flathead River glistens in the sun near the National Bison Refuge.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., will introduce the Montana Water Rights Protection Act to the U.S. Senate next week after reaching an agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on a framework for a permanent water settlement.

The Tribes agreed to relinquish 97% of their water claim rights, while Congress would provide the Tribes with $1.9 billion for damages and rehabilitation of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.

Lake and Sanders counties would also receive $10 million in road infrastructure funds.

Daines’ office said the new agreement would reduce settlement costs and save taxpayers $400 million compared to alternative proposals.

“After years of negotiations and hard work, I’m pleased to announce we have reached a new agreement that permanently settles a century old water dispute in Montana and protects the water rights of all Montanans,” Daines said in a press release.

The agreement has received bipartisan support, including from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who introduced the CSKT Water Compact to the U.S. Senate in 2016.

“Today’s deal is long-overdue good news for Tribes, farmers, ranchers, and Montana taxpayers,” Tester said in a press release.

“I’m glad we’re all now on the same page about the importance of getting this done, but the clock is ticking on our ability to prevent costly litigation and protect our state’s most valuable resource.”

The deal would require 2.7% of the remaining water claims to be co-owned by the state of Montana, while the remaining 0.3% would be dedicated to protecting fish habitat and access for outdoor recreation. It would also allow tribal members and non-tribal members to settle disputes in state courts rather than federal courts.

Robert McDonald, communications director for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said in an email that top elected officials for the Tribes reviewed the proposed bill and “found it acceptable.”

“If approved by Congress and signed into law, the Senators’ legislation will provide stability and certainty for thousands of water rights in Montana for the first time in state history. It will also provide long-needed water infrastructure improvements, natural resource mitigation, and an effective management framework for water rights administration,” McDonald wrote.

Gov. Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox both expressed their support for the new agreement.

“President Trump’s administration is backing the CSKT water compact and there is bipartisan support from Montana’s congressional delegation, so it’s time to get this done,” Fox said in a press release.

State and tribal officials predict that settling the Tribes’ water rights would avert decades of costly litigation, as more than 10,000 water rights claims would have to be adjudicated by the Montana Water Court, the Missoulian reported on Nov. 29.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr echoed this sentiment while speaking with reporters in Kalispell on Nov. 22.

“I think we have to bring clarity to the situation, and I also think that these kinds of settlements, these kinds of complicated problems, are best done through this negotiation process,” Barr said.

The Montana Legislature approved the CSKT Water Compact in 2015 after decades of contentious negotiations between the Tribes, the federal government and the state of Montana. However, it has been stalled at the federal level since Tester brought it to the Senate.

Reporter Colin Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or cgaiser@dailyinterlake.com

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