Daines measure ending tribal water dispute becomes law

A bipartisan bill offered by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) that permanently settles a century-long tribal water dispute in his home state recently became law as part of the roughly $1.4 trillion omnibus appropriations package signed by the president.

“I’m very glad I could play a direct role in getting this done, and I thank President Trump for signing our bill into law,” said Sen. Daines on Dec. 27.

The Montana Water Rights Protection Act, S. 3019, which Sen. Daines sponsored in December 2019 with cosponsor U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), authorizes, ratifies and confirms a specified water rights settlement entered into by the United States, Montana, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of the Flathead Reservation of Montana. Certain claims of the tribes against the U.S. now are waived and released, according to the congressional record bill summary.

Additionally, the bill directs the U.S. Department of the Interior to allocate specified amounts of storage water in Hungry Horse Reservoir for use by the tribes, and permits the tribes to carry out specific activities related to the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, such as rehabilitating structures, upgrading irrigation facilities, and restoring streams that are affected by such project, according to the summary.

“After years of a lot of effort, our bipartisan bill that settles the century-long CSKT water dispute is now law,” Sen. Daines said. “This is a huge win for all Montanans. Our bill protects the water rights of all Montanans, saves taxpayer dollars, creates jobs, modernizes rural infrastructure, protects Montana agriculture and prevents costly litigation.”

Without the senators’ efforts, Montana’s agriculture economy would face a $1.3 billion hit and thousands of Montanans would be forced to litigate their water rights causing substantial uncertainty for the state’s farmers and ranchers, according to Sen. Daines’ office.

The bill also establishes the Séliš-Qlispé Ksanka Settlement Trust Fund; requires the Department of the Interior to offer to negotiate with Montana for the transfer of specific parcels of state land; requires the National Bison Range to be held in trust for the benefit of the tribes; and requires Interior to make certain payments to Lake and Sanders counties in Montana for the restoration of the National Bison Range, according to the congressional record.

The bill was included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, H.R. 133, which the president signed into law on Dec. 27.