Daines to introduce sweeping legislation to settle CSKT’s Flathead water claims

Sen. Steve Daines (KPAX photo)

(KPAX) Sen. Steve Daines announced Thursday that a newly developed settlement will bring a permanent solution to the dispute over tribal water rights claims in western Montana, in a deal worth upwards of $2 billion.

The settlement, which forms the framework of a new agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, would replace the pending Flathead Water Compact.

News of the agreement came after recent statements from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and U.S. Attorney General William Barr gave indications of movement in the dispute, which has been stalled at the federal level for the past four years.

Daines said the agreement contains multiple elements to resolve the dispute over tribal water claims dating back to the Hellgate Treaty of 1855.

“After years of negotiations and hard work, I’m pleased to announce we have reached a new agreement that permanently settles a century old water dispute in Montana and protects the water rights of all Montanans,” Daines said in a statement issued with the announcement.

“The Montana Water Rights Protection Act will permanently eliminate almost all of CSKT’s water claim rights across Montana with prejudice, save taxpayers over $400 million, and give all water users across Montana protection and certainty.”

Under the settlement, Daines said the tribe would relinquish 97% of water rights claims with prejudice, meaning the dispute couldn’t be revived through litigation at a later date. Of the remaining rights, 2.7% would be co-owned with the state of Montana, with the remaining .3% reserved for fisheries and wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation.

Additionally, the settlement would give CSKT $1.9 billion in damages, providing hundreds of millions of dollars to rehabilitate the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, and $10 million for road and infrastructure improvements in Lake and Sanders counties.

Sen. Jon Tester praised the announcement.

“Today’s deal is long overdue good news for tribes, farmers, ranchers and Montana taxpayers,” said Tester. “I’m glad we’re all now on the same page about the importance of getting this done, but the clock is ticking on our ability to prevent costly litigation and protect our state’s most valuable resource.

“It’s critical we get the CSKT Compact introduced and moving so we can provide certainty for all water users and boost economic development in northwest Montana.”

The settlement reaffirms Montana’s constitutional claims that the state’s waters belong to all residents “for common benefit.” It also protects the ability of non-tribal and tribal members to bring water rights disputes to state court for resolution. That had been a point of contention during the long debate over the Flathead Water Compact.

The Montana Republican plans to introduce the Montana Water Rights Protection Act next week, and said he’ll be working with Tester to get his support to push the act through Congress.

The announcement marks an entirely new direction in the dispute over the tribal water rights claims, and would replace the Flathead Water Compact, which had been approved by the Montana Legislature in 2015.

Daines said if the settlement is approved, it wouldn’t require further consideration by the Legislature.