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Daines, Tribes Announce Water Agreement

Montana Senator Steve Daines and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes announced Thursday that they have come to a new agreement that would settle thousands of the tribes’ water rights claims.

Daines says he will introduce legislation next week that, if approved by Congress, will bring more than a decade of negotiation over the tribes’ water rights to an end. Daines was not available for an interview, but provided this recorded comment.

“The Montana Water Rights Protection Act will permanently eliminate almost all of CSKT’s water claim rights across Montana,” he says.

Much like the compact passed by the Montana Legislature in 2015, Daines says his bill would relinquish 97% of all of the tribes’ water rights claims that will need to be settled in court if Congress doesn’t approve either proposal.

The Trump administration recently signaled its support for the 2015 compact, which has been waiting for Congressional approval.

It’s unclear whether the Salish and Kootenai Tribes would maintain the same on and off-reservation claims under the new legislation as they would under the 2015 compact. Daines only described the basic framework of his bill in press release Thursday.

The release says the key differences between this piece of legislation and the compact is that it lowers the amount of taxpayer dollars that would go toward the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project by $400 million. The tribe would receive $1.9 billion under the new agreement. The deal would also allow non-tribal residents on the reservation to settle water disputes in state and federal courts rather than only being decided before federal judges.

Thursday’s announcement was applauded by Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who says he proposed a similar plan to Congress in 2016. Tester provided a pre-recorded statement.

“I’m glad we’re now on the same page about the importance of getting this done, but the clock is talking and it’s ticking on our ability to prevent costly litigation and protect our state’s most valuable resource,” he says.

Reading from a press release, CSKT spokesperson Rob McDonald said the tribe is thankful for both Tester and Daines’ support.

“The compact will fund long overdue repairs and improvement to the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project that will benefit the entire community. It will also secure in-stream flows for sensitive fisheries to ensure the protection of wildlife and lands,” he says.

Critics of the compact like state Sen. and Republican gubernatorial candidate Albert Olszewski of Kalispell are reserving judgement until Daines releases his bill next week.

“And it’s too vague to know what effect it’s going to have in western Montana, what effect it will have in District 6, in the Flathead and Lake counties," he says.

Unlike the compact passed by the Montana Legislature in 2015, Daines’ office says his bill would not have to be approved by state lawmakers because it’s a settlement with the Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the federal government.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.