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Water compact needs more negotiation

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The CSKT-Montana Water Compact flowed into the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing as Senate Bill 3013 on Thursday, June 29, in Washington, D.C. and hit a slight hurdle.

The Department of Interior recognized the support for resolving Indian Water Rights claims in Montana but they could not support the compact at this time due to its approximate $2.3 billion dollar federal improvement settlement. Senior Counselor to the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior Alletta Belin recognized the great deal of effort that it has taken to settle the compact through negotiations.

“We commend the tribes and the state of Montana for the excellent work that they have done in furtherance of the compact, however the department cannot support S. 3013 as introduced,” she said.

The cost of the project is the problem.

“The department has significant concerns about the federal costs of the settlement which total approximately $2.3 billion dollars,” she said. “And we have not yet completed a full and robust analysis and discussion of all aspects and ramifications of this substantial settlement.”

She said later in the meeting that the compact has “a significantly higher price tag than any enacted water settlement to date.”

She noted the CSKT compact is more contentious than the others due to instream water flows being redirected. She said the issue of the tribe’s water rights to instream flows on the reservation and the fact that the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project was constructed is a major issue that creates a whole set of other concerns. The trick is figuring out how to balance existing water project uses and restoring the health of instream flows.

“That is quite complex,” she said. Montana Senator Jon Tester was prepared for the argument against the compact. During the meeting, he said that this is the process that most compacts have taken across the state.

He said the department also testified that they could not support the bill for the Blackfeet Compact three years ago. Since then, the parties negotiated, and recently agreed that the bill conforms to criteria applied to Indian Water Right’s settlements.

The compact was introduced to the senate in May of this year by Senator Tester. The Indian Affairs Committee hearing is one of the steps the compact must take on its journey through the senate before congress votes to pass it or not. “This bill would affirm the water rights compact between the tribes and the State of Montana,” Tester said as the vice chairman of the committee. “This bill would also settle the tribe’s claims against the United States for failure to protect the tribe’s water rights for over a century.”

Montana Senator Steve Daines also testified at the hearing by saying Indian Water Rights settlements were a way to resolve conflict among water users, to clear the burden of potential liability at the federal and state level, and allow tribes to access and develop their water resources.

“And most importantly, these settlements are a key component of the federal government’s tribal trust responsibility,” he said.

Daines spoke about the complexity of the compact.

“The CSKT Compact is one of the most complex water settlements in history,” he said. “It is the most expensive … it has meaningful implications for the tribes, for our state, and other water users on and off the reservation.”

Although, he noted that the compact has created “a lot of passion” in Montana, which was demonstrated by its narrow passage in the state legislator.

CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley provided testimony at the hearing. He thanked Tester for his work in Indian country. He said that water was utilized by Indian people for time immemorial and that the treaty of 1855 promised them the ability to utilize the water and practice traditions throughout their homeland.

He said that water streams from the south to the north were dissected on the reservation when it was opened to homesteading and the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project was created.

“It had severe effect on our treaty right,” he said, adding that when the treaty was signed the government accepted the responsibility of being a trustee for the Indian people. He said the trust responsibility had been violated with numerous actions infringing on their rights, but the bill is a way to resolve water responsibilities.

“I strongly urge the committee and senate to approve this legislation,” he said.

Finley said that opening up the reservation was seen as a negative when it happened. He said his grandmother told him that opposites can also have a positive aspect. He said he respects the economic benefits of opening the reservation as a positive. He said the compact will help settle some of the negative problems that have occurred.

The department said they support the aspects of the compact, excluding the cost, and plan to continue negotiations. Unless unforeseen developments occur, it was estimated that the compact could be ready for a vote

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