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Water rights bill moves to U.S. Senate

by Matt Baldwin
Daily Inter Lake | July 31, 2020 1:00 AM

Legislation aimed at settling a long-running water-rights dispute in Western Montana cleared another hurdle on Wednesday as it moved out of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The Montana Water Rights Protection Act now goes to the U.S. Senate for consideration.

Introduced last year by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., the bill offers the framework for a settlement between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the federal government on water-rights claims in Western Montana. It has received bipartisan support, including co-sponsorship from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who introduced the CSKT Water Compact to the Senate in 2016.

In the legislation, the Tribes would relinquish 97% of their water-rights claims. Congress would provide the Tribes with $1.9 billion for damages and rehabilitation of the Flathead Irrigation Project, and that funding would be held in trust by the Interior Department until the Tribes develop a spending plan. The act would also transfer management of the National Bison Range from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Tribes.

The bill received a friendly review from Trump administration officials during a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on June 24. It formally cleared the committee with a voice vote on Wednesday, including a few amendments.

Daines has touted the job-creation aspect of the bill — pegged at 600 permanent jobs and some 5,000 temporary jobs — and says the deal would eliminate the potential for costly and lengthy litigation.

“For decades, the CSKT water dispute has gone unresolved in Montana, leading to uncertainty for thousands of Montanans across our state,” Daines stated in a media release.

“I am glad to see this Committee take steps to advance my important legislation for Montana and resolve this dispute.”

In a statement, Tester reiterated that the bill brings “surety that water users in Montana desperately need.”

CSKT Chairwoman Shelly Fyant also lauded the Committee on Indian Affairs vote, saying the legislation will “provide critical water infrastructure projects, create jobs, restore our fisheries and water quality, grow the economy, and enhance the Reservation’s natural landscape and ecosystem.”

Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker continues to take issue with what he describes as “secrecy” surrounding the funding aspect of the bill. Earlier this year the Commission went as far as filing a Freedom of Information Act request with Daines’ office to obtain the so-called “damages report” that was used to determine the total funding amount. Daines’ office has noted that members of Congress are protected from FOIA requests.

“There will be no disclosure to taxpayers and the public as to the how the $1.9 billion figure attached to the Act was arrived at, nor once the money is spent, will the public see the expenditures report prepared by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes detailing how the money was spent,” Decker wrote Wednesday in a letter sent to the Inter Lake.

The Lake County Commission has also expressed concerns about the potential erosion of the county’s tax base and rights of way — which Daines says won’t occur.

Lake County commissioners have joined with Republican legislators across the state in requesting local hearings on the bill.