Historic Water Rights Settlement Receives Hearing in Senate Indian Affairs Committee
Published June 30, 2016
WASHINGTON—Senator Jon Tester on Wednesday was joined by farmers, ranchers, landowners, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) in calling on Congress to move forward with the historic CSKT Water Compact.
In a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing, Vice Chairman Tester ensured the facts of the water rights settlement were available to every member of Congress and helped begin a dialogue between the Tribes, Congress, local stakeholders, and the Department of the Interior.
“I want to reiterate this fact. The CSKT Water Compact was negotiated and constructed over years of on-the-ground collaboration between the tribes, local landowners, and the state,” Tester said. “This bill has been a collaborative process that has been decades in the making—despite frivolous efforts to derail the process with fear and misinformation. This hearing is just the beginning of the process here in Washington. I welcome the tribes’, local stakeholders’, and Interior’s input so we can continue to grow support for this bill.”
Congress must approve the CSKT Water Compact to ratify the water rights settlement between CSKT and the State of Montana, protect the claims of existing water rights holders, resolve CSKT’s water-related claims with the federal government, establish resources to update critical water infrastructure, and avoid costly litigation between CSKT and the federal government.
CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley testified during the hearing– reaffirming the collaboration and bipartisan support the CSKT Water Compact has received.
“The Compact reflects what can happen when stakeholders work in earnest to seek resolution that can bring a true measure of justice and satisfaction to the parties involved,” Chairman Finley said.
The CSKT Water Compact protects the claims of existing water rights holders, and makes major investments in local irrigation infrastructure that will benefit tribal and non-tribal farmers and ranchers. The compact also establishes funds to expand agriculture development within the Flathead Reservation-including noxious weed control, livestock fencing, irrigation ditches and canal screens, and livestock barriers.
Farmers and ranchers from across Montana united to highlight the importance of passing the CSKT Water Compact.
“The passage of both the Compact and the settlement will significantly benefit members of our agricultural community and water users throughout Montana. Not only will the Compact ensure that farmers, ranchers, and irrigators have the water resources they need, but it will protect thousands of existing water rights from tribal call — preventing decades of litigation and saving individual water users millions of dollars,” said the Montana Farmers Bureau Federation, Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Water Resource Association, Association of Gallatin Agriculture Irrigators, Montana Agriculture Business Association, and Montana Farmers Union. “The CSKT Water Compact provides the certainty farmers, ranchers, and irrigators across Montana need, while also improving irrigation infrastructure. The Compact and the proposed settlement set aside funds for projects that both improve water use efficiency and effectiveness of water delivery systems and invest in agricultural resources by improving livestock fencing, controlling noxious weeds, and installing barriers to prevent the blockage of irrigation canals.”
Additionally, the CSKT Water Compact makes major investments to improve drinking and wastewater infrastructure and fish habitats.
In 2015, after a decade of negotiations between CSKT, the State of Montana, and local landowners, the Montana legislature passed the bipartisan CSKT Water Compact.
Before being ratified, all tribal water rights compacts must pass the state legislature and both chambers of Congress.
Wednesday’s hearing marked the beginning of months long negotiations between members of Congress, the Tribes, and the Department of the Interior that is needed to finalize the compact.
Tester is currently sponsoring the Blackfeet Water Compact, which was recently passed by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor, and in 2010, Tester helped pass the Crow Water Compact.