Highlights importance of finalizing last Indian water rights settlement, benefits to Tribe, State
U.S. SENATE – U.S. Senator Steve Daines at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing highlighted the importance of finalizing Montana’s last Indian water rights settlement with his bipartisan “Fort Belknap Water Rights Settlement Act.”
Daines: Today is historic, it really is. I sometimes wondered if we’d ever get to this point, to have this kind of hearing. When I was first elected to the House 2012 over a decade ago, this is one of the first issues I heard about. I heard about it from the Tribe. I heard about it from the county commissioners, Phillips County, Blaine County. Both sides wanted to set me straight on their strong opinions on this compact. Less than just a year ago, this settlement still had opposition from numerous groups, and here’s the truth of the matter. It was going nowhere. It was going nowhere. And as President Stiffarm so well-articulated I think we had to put aside the concerns for only ourselves and think about future generations. As he said it’s been a century long battle.
President Stiffarm, I commend you and your courage, your leadership, to say I want to solve this problem because for 10 years, the bill gets introduced and it was press releases, but it wasn’t actually going to get an outcome. And through your leadership and your willingness to figure out a path forward, the courage, we are here. We buckled down the last six months.
The Governor’s team as well as Department of the Interior and President Stiffarm team held the first of many intense negotiations. It got intense at times. I worked with our county commissioners, they got intense at times. Working with our Montana farming and ranching communities and as the Lieutenant Governor talked about whiskey and water that is really true in a place that has a lot less water than whiskey.
We came to a compromise, and Senator Tester and I introduced a bipartisan bill. I’m proud to say that today. For the first time ever, we have the support of Montana’s entire Congressional delegation. We have the support from Governor Gianforte and his administration. We have the support of the Tribe. We have the support of every affected county commissioner. We have support of the agriculture groups, and many more for this critically important bill. It is hard to ever get that group aligned on about anything. And yet here we are today. Again, President Stiffarm, I commend you for your leadership and vision…
Again, this bill is the result of a lot of compromise. Years, actually a century of work or more, and it will be a major benefit to Montana. It fully settles costly water rights litigation.
I’m grateful to Lieutenant Governor Juras went to law school. I didn’t. I’m not a lawyer. I went to engineering school, that other school a couple hundred miles away from Missoula. It fully funds the rehabilitation of the Milk River Project, which is the lifeblood for our farmers and ranchers both on and off the reservation. If you ever fly over that part of the state, you can see where it’s green and where it’s not. It’s very, very clear what in terms that water being the lifeblood, invest in infrastructure to provide clean drinking water and irrigation for tribal and non-tribal members. And it protects existing easements and leases. The Fort Belknap Water Rights Settlement Act is truly a win. It’s a win. It’s a win. It’s a win for Montana.
Daines had the opportunity to ask Fort Belknap Tribal Council President Stiffarm and Montana Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras about what this settlement will mean for Montana and the Fort Belknap Tribe.
Daines: This bill is critical for both the State and the Tribe. Lieutenant Governor Juras, you spent time, considerable time working towards a practical solution that benefits Montana. How does the current bill protect private property rights, increase investment, agriculture and address the complex land ownership issues that we face in Montana?
Juras: Well, as I noted in my testimony, it avoids expensive and lengthy and unpredictable litigation. In Montana, we follow the prior appropriation doctrine which grants seniority to first in time first and right. So, it actually provides predictability not only for the tribes, but also for the state water right holders, because the tribes’ water rights date back prior to almost all stakeholders, and all of those rights are junior. And so, until the tribes water rights are confirmed, and finalized, junior water right holders cannot finalize that, and of course, our water rights are very important property rights. It also provides for mitigation of on the impact of off reservation water users through the rehabilitation of the St. Mary Canal and Fresno and other water structures. Without Senate Bill 1987, the tribes water rights will remain paper water rights and we’ll continue to have that uncertainty.
Daines: It’s really important point because if anybody who’s dealt with water out west knows, as soon as of the date of that right determines priority. And that’s that point you made about the Tribe’s rights, you know, predating a lot of other rights is really important, and we don’t settle that we can never resolve this issue. So, it’s really important point why we need to get this done.
President Stiffarm, the Tribe has made numerous concessions in order to get to where we are today. Thank you for your work, your grandchildren and my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will thank you for your work. The bill before us is a compromise for the State, the Tribe, the federal government, dozens of local leaders and groups. There’s still work to do from this point forward. But this is a really important monumental step. My question for you President Stiffarm, how does the bill enhance the Tribe’s water resources and ensure that your members have access to clean drinking water and sustainable irrigation?
Stiffarm: Thank you for the question, Senator Daines. First of all, I want to thank you for those words that you shared with me and keep me humble and grounded and appreciate those. What this water settlement is going to mean for the people in Fort Belknap and in surrounding communities is clean drinking water, water for the future, like we talked about for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. You know, that’s what we’re all here for. That’s all we’re all surviving here today is for our children and grandchildren, and for their lives, for better lives. In the south end we’ll be pumping water onto the Missouri River up intothe Hays and Lodge Grass communities which doesn’t have clean drinking water because of the mining devastation that we had from Zortman and Landusky mine runoff from the mountains. So, we’re going be able to provide some clean drinking water in the south end communities also infrastructure to the homes that we plan on building. You know, back home, we got two or three generations living in one home, and with some of the money that we’re going to use and be able to dig some wells and build homes further out from the communities and like I said, provide better clean drinking water and irrigation systems for farmers and ranchers up and down Hi-Line and it’s going to like I said, provide hope where there no hope before. I want to thank you for your help. And again, Lieutenant Governor, I’m honored to be sitting next to you and listen to your testimony.