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Law makers settle water rights issues

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After years of negotiation, water rights issues on the Flathead Reservation flowed to the top level as the Montana Water Rights Protection Act passed with bipartisan effort in the United States Senate on Monday, Dec. 21.

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Chairwoman Shelly R. Fyant called the event historic: “This is one of the most significant days in the history of our people and one that will have a profound and positive impact on the future of the Flathead Reservation for the next century,” she said. 

The bill now moves to the President’s desk for signature. President Donald Trump expressed support for the bipartisan bill back in June. United States Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester together introduced the bill in December of 2019. 

“I cannot express how much we appreciate the hard work that the Montana Congressional Delegation put into this bill and now having it signed into law,” Fyant said. “From Senator Tester’s initial introduction of the bill four years ago, to Senator Daines’ introduction, amendments and work with the Trump Administration this year and to both of our Senators urging their respective leaders to include the bill in the omnibus appropriations bill, and to Congressman Gianforte’s work with the Minority Leader in the House, all played pivotal roles, and the residents of Montana should be thankful for their efforts. We certainly are grateful. We also express our appreciation to the many agriculture and conservation groups across Montana and even across the country who also helped advocate for passage of this truly historic and important bill.” 

Fyant continued: “This will conclude a very long and difficult effort to quantify the water rights of the Selis, Qlispe, and Ksanka People. This means we can avoid decades of acrimonious litigation on streams across much of Montana and protect many streams with sufficient amounts of water to ensure fish can survive and Montana’s residents can recreate and fish as they have for generations. The bill will also restore the National Bison Range back to Tribal ownership where it will be professionally managed for bison conservation and will remain open to the public.  The implementation of the settlement will create thousands of good paying jobs and help boost our regional economy. This is a once-in-a lifetime moment for CSKT.”

The purpose of the act was to settle water rights claims in the State of Montana in recognition of the Montana State Constitution between CSKT and the United States and authorize necessary funds to implement the Water Compact, which included a $2 billion dollar trust. 

“With passage of S. 3019, we will be able to rehabilitate and modernize the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project and restore damages to fish and wildlife habitat caused by the project, while simultaneously protecting farmers and ranchers who depend on irrigation for their livelihoods,” Fyant said.

In the bill, irrigation activities include “rehabilitation of structures, canals, and pumping facilities, including dam safety improvements, irrigation facility upgrades that improve water management and operational control at irrigation diversion works.” Additional upgrades will be made to reduce water loss from irrigation sources to supply points. The work also includes restoration of streams, wetlands, banks, slopes and wasteways affected by the FIIP project.

The document concludes by stating that the Montana Water Rights Protection Act does not set precedent for future situations regarding Federal land, property or facilities and is “uniquely suited to address the distinct circumstances, facts, history, and relationships involved with the bison, land, and tribes.”

Daines and Tester celebrated the passage of the bill and released a rare bipartisan statement, along with Congressman Greg Gianforte. Daines stated: “After years of hard work, the U.S. Senate passed our bipartisan bill that permanently resolves the century long CSKT water dispute and will soon become law. Without our bill, thousands of Montanans would be forced into very expensive litigation and our ag economy would’ve taken over a one billion dollar hit. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to pass our bill that protects the water rights of all Montanans, saves taxpayer dollars, creates jobs, modernizes rural infrastructure projects, protects Montana agriculture and prevents very costly litigation. This is a win for all Montanans.”

Tester  added: “This victory has been decades in the making and is a huge win for Montana taxpayers, ranchers, farmers, and the Tribes. Water is among our most valuable resources, and ratifying this compact honors our trust responsibilities, creates jobs and invests in infrastructure while providing certainty to water users everywhere. I’m thankful we were able to work together to get this critical legislation across the finish line.”

Gianforte concluded: “I am glad we were able to get this done to bring certainty to Montana’s farmers, ranchers, the Salish and Kootenai tribes and all the water users across the state. Thank you to my colleagues in the Senate for their work on this legislation.” 






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