The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes were encouraged by the first U.S. Senate hearing of their water compact settlement with the State of Montana. Senator Jon Tester introduced the legislation to Congress last month.
During the settlement’s first hearing in the U.S. Senate Committee of Indian Affairs on Wednesday, the compact did not receive support from the U.S. Department of Interior.
But CSKT Communications Director Robert McDonald said the hearing was a good step in moving the compact forward.
"It's a vetting process of getting used to it and understanding the nuances and understanding that everything in place has a purpose, and has a good reason to be there and will ultimately end up being rock solid. We’re comfortable with the response; this is how the process works, and we’re in it for the long haul."
The CSKT-Montana Compact is the result of more than a decade of negotiations between the state, tribes and local interests and comes with a price tag of $2.3 billion.
Wednesday’s hearing was the first opportunity for the U.S. Department of Interior to respond publicly to the compact. Alletta Belin is senior counsel for the agency.
"Well, it's a significantly higher price tag than any enacted water settlement to date. It's obviously a substantial federal price tag, and to date we have not negotiated federal contributions at all."
Belin says those negotiations will begin with the tribes and local parties as soon as possible.
Interior had nearly an identical response during the initial presentation of the Blackfeet water rights compact, which was introduced by Senator Jon Tester in 2011. The original bid of that compact came in around $600 million and was negotiated down to just over $400 million.
The CSKT’s Robert McDonald says this water compact is one of the most complicated of the seven that Montana has negotiated with tribes.
He says it tries to balance the agricultural use and development of waterways with protection of endangered fish populations.
McDonald says the mix of tribal and non-tribal members living on the Flathead Reservation also complicates the issue.
“Since 1910 the ownership of this reservation changed drastically. That is when it was opened up against our will to homesteading. Settlers were essentially invited in to get land. So, fast forward 100 years, you have a very mixed land ownership, a very mixed population, and multiple governments - tribal, county, state, federal - all trying to find ways to make day-to-day life work.”
The CSKT compact was passed out of the state legislature in 2015 and now must pass both chambers of the U.S. Congress.
Wednesday’s hearing was the beginning of what will be months-long talks between congressional members, the tribes and the Department of the Interior.
Previous tribal water compacts with Montana have taken years to win congressional approval.
Irrigators in the Flathead Joint Board of Control are trying to bring negotiations of the compact back to the state level. They are suing in district court, saying that the compact passed the state legislature with only a simple majority, but it required a two thirds supermajority.
There’s no timeline for when the court might rule on the lawsuit.