Senate committee reviews water compact

The Montana Water Rights Protection Act received a favorable review from Interior officials last week as the Senate Indian Affairs Committee took a first look at the proposed legislation.

Introduced last year by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., the act offers the framework for a settlement between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the federal government on water-rights claims in Western Montana. It has received bipartisan support, including a favorable nod from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who introduced the CSKT Water Compact to the Senate in 2016.

In Daines’ legislation, the Tribes would relinquish 97% of their water rights claims. Congress would provide the Tribes with $1.9 billion for damages and rehabilitation of the Flathead Irrigation Project, and that funding would be held in trust by the Interior Department until the Tribes develop a spending plan. The act would also transfer management of the National Bison Range from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Tribes.

Speaking at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing, Tim Petty, Assistant Secretary of Water and Science at U.S. Department of Interior, said the act has the department’s full support.

“The bill, and the underlying compact, are the product of a great deal of effort by many parties and reflect the desire by the people of Montana, Indian and non-Indian, to settle their difference through negotiation rather than litigation,” Petty said.

Petty said one concern with the act is a “lack of assurances” that the $1.9 billion will be spent appropriately, but that his department was working to address those concerns.

“The department supports the level of funding … in large part because the department recognizes the substantial cost associated with rehabilitating and modernizing the irrigation system … while still maintaining the status quo and preserving the ag economy in the region,” Petty added.

Daines said he planned to make amendments to address the issue of oversight.

“After meeting with our county commissioners in Montana, local legislators and other key stakeholders, I’ve heard a lot of similar concerns,” Daines stated. “That is why I plan to amend my bill … to strengthen the oversight of this very important settlement.”

Petty said that if any “waste, fraud and abuse” were found during oversight, that the Interior would work with the Tribes on “corrective action plans to bring them in compliance within the settlement.”

At the hearing, Daines peppered Petty with a series of questions in an effort to ease concerns about the legislation, including the Lake County Commission’s concerns about the potential erosion of its tax base and rights of way.

Petty replied that the legislation provides direct compensation both to Lake and Sanders counties, and that the Tribes cannot use settlement dollars “to simply buy land.”

Daines then asked Petty if there was “anything in the bill that would force and unwilling landowner to give up property to the Tribe or the federal government?”

“No, the bill includes language prohibiting condemnation of land,” Petty replied.

Daines asked Petty what would happen to the Flathead Irrigation Project if the compact does not pass.

“The continued operation of the [irrigation project], as is, raises significant ESA compliance issues right off the bat, and issues the department will have to address,” Petty responded.

Daines also addressed concerns about plans to transfer the National Bison Range to the Tribes, confirming with Petty that the state land board would have to approve such a land exchange.

“For the first time we are codifying public access to the National Bison Range, while protecting refuge revenue payments for Lake and Sanders counties. What level of confidence does the department have in the Tribes ability to manage the Bison Range effectively?” Daines asked Petty.

“We do have high confidence,” Petty replied, making note that the current director of the range is a CSKT tribal member.

Petty also touted the job-creation benefits of the act — pegged at 600 permanent jobs and some 5,000 temporary jobs.

“It provides a significant and important benefit to the economy of not only the reservation, but also the state of Montana,” Petty said in his opening statements.

In his remarks, Sen. Tester said the hearing was a moment that “has been decades in the making.”

“It does great things for building infrastructure, both inside and outside the reservation. It does great things for providing certainty to towns and water owners across Montana,” he added.

“We need this water settlement for Montana. We need it for predictability, we need it for certainty, we need it to be able to grow our economy.”

Bureau of Indian Affairs director Darryl LaCounte also praised the legislation.

“It’s been a contentious issue in the state of Montana for a long time,” he told the committee. “Getting this done and behind everyone would resolve a lot of issues … simply because it would be resolved. Everyone can get their lives in order and go about their business as they know it’s going to be.”

He added that the BIA, “significantly supports returning the National Bison Range back to where it started.”