Two top officials in the Trump Administration offered support for one of the state’s final remaining tribal water agreements last week.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact narrowly passed the state Legislature in 2015 after more than a decade of negotiation. It settles water rights in and around the Flathead Reservation. Now, it needs to pass in the U.S. Congress.
In a November 18 memo to Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said, "The Department of the Interior has evaluated the core concerns and criticisms that have been raised with respect to the Compact and found that these concerns were addressed in the negotiations."
That memo was a response to an October letter from Daines, outlining arguments from a citizen group that proposed an alternative water compact last fall without input from the tribes, state, or federal government. Dubbed “the People’s Compact,” the document limits tribal water rights and strips the tribes of all off-reservation claims.
Last Friday, Attorney General William Barr said he, too trusts the lengthy negotiations that went into forming the CSKT Water Compact.
"I think this was the right kind of process to use, I think it was a thorough process, I think it’s a good outcome to that process," Barr said.
Absent the compact, the tribe’s claims could wind up in court, and both officials said an endless legal battle could lead to negative outcomes for all parties involved.
Julia Doyle, spokesperson for Daines, says the comments from both Barr and Bernhart reaffirm the need for a settlement.
"The Senator will continue engaging with stakeholders to reach an agreement that avoids litigation and protects the rights of all Montanans."
Republican state Sen. and gubernatorial candidate Al Olszewski, a longtime critic of the CSKT Water Compact, says he disagrees with Bernhart and Barr. Among other claims, he says the Compact grants the tribes too much water in too many places.
"I respect them as a sovereign entity that should have self-determination. And their self-determination is for their people and for their reserved land. Not off-reservation. And I just ask for the same respect back for the people of western Montana, that’s all,” Olszewski says.