The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Tuesday officially ratified a water rights compact with the state and federal government. This begins the process of implementing the $1.9 billion settlement.
The CSKT Tribal Council unanimously approved a resolution ratifying the compact, making it official following its passage through Congress last week.
“We have several years to implement this, and we have a lot of work to do with the rebuilding of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project and the assumption of the National Bison Range,” CSKT Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said.
Under the compact, the federal government will provide the tribes with $90 million annually over the next 10 years to rebuild the Flathead Irrigation Project. Congress will eventually need to pass additional appropriation bills to allocate the remainder of the $1.9 billion earmarked for the project. That funding is in exchange for the tribes relinquishing a majority of their water rights claims.
The compact also transfers the National Bison Range over to the tribes for ongoing management. Tribal council members said prior to ratifying the compact that they have already been in touch with the U.S. Interior Department about the transition process, which will take place over the next two years.
The tribes’ ratification of the compact prevents state lawmakers from pulling out of the deal, which they agreed to via legislation in 2015. One Republican lawmaker has already requested a bill to do so. Meanwhile, a group of conservative lawmakers signed onto a letter this week calling for a lawsuit to block the CSKT water compact and say they feel betrayed by Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines for sponsoring the legislation.
Republican Rep. Derek Skees of Kalispell was among those state lawmakers and says land exchanges in the compact passed by Congress weren’t part of the deal passed by the 2015 state Legislature.
“As the Legislature, what we should do right away is pass a resolution on like day one, saying: ‘wait a minute, why does the tribe get ratify this when it returns from Congress, but the state of Montana doesn’t have to?’” Skees said.
A spokesperson for Sen. Daines’ office didn’t respond to Skee’s arguments about changes to the compact, but said the legislation passed by Congress was based on the agreement the state ratified.
CSKT Chairwoman Fyant says the state, federal government and the tribes participated in a fair and open negotiation to pass the compact.