After more than a decade of negotiation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes water compact passed through Congress late Monday evening.
The Montana Water Rights Protection Act passed on the coattails of the larger COVID relief and federal omnibus spending bill. The bill now heads to President Donald Trump’s desk.
During a virtual press conference Tuesday, CSKT Chairwoman Shelly Fyant told reporters the water compact was decades in the making.
“We chose the path of negotiation and now we can avoid decades of acrimonious litigation on streams across much of Montana and protect many streams with sufficient amounts of water to make sure that fish can survive,” Fyant said.
Under the compact, the tribes will relinquish most of their water rights claims on and off the reservation in exchange for nearly $2 billion for maintenance on the Flathead irrigation project and management of the National Bison Rage.
Fyant said the bison range will remain open to the public and will be professionally managed.
“Who better to do it than the original inhabitants of the land who depended on the buffalo for centuries? That was our mainstay,” Fyant added.
Fyant said the CSKT tribal council is waiting for President Trump to sign the larger COVID relief and federal spending bill before deciding how to ratify the compact, which can happen with approval from the tribal council or the council could decide to put it out for a vote of tribal members.
Both of Montana’s U.S. Senators had a key role in getting the bill across the finish line in Congress. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said in an interview with MTPR that he and Republican Sen. Steve Daines had been working over the past two weeks to attach the CSKT water compact to the larger spending bill.
“If we wouldn’t of got this attached to this bill, we would have had to reintroduce it next Congress, potentially have another hearing on it and start over,” Tester explained.
Tester first introduced legislation to finalize the water compact in 2016 after state lawmakers approved the settlement the year before.
Daines introduced the current piece of legislation late last year, which included new measures such as the transfer of National Bison Range management to the tribes. He released this recorded statement:
“This will protect the water rights of all Montanans, it’s going to save taxpayer dollars, it’ll create jobs, it’ll modernize infrastructure and most importantly prevent costly litigation,” Daines said.
The passage of the water compact also garnered praise from wildlife and conservation groups who say work completed through the settlement will benefit fisheries.