CSKT map

An agreement between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the federal government over long-disputed water rights took a major step forward Thursday when Montana Sen. Steve Daines said he plans to introduce a bill that would implement a new settlement framework.

“Today is a really important step. We’ve reached a historic compromise on a century-old dispute that protects the water rights of all Montanans,” Daines said Thursday in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. “We’ve reached a new agreement that addressed my concerns, that addressed those of many others in the agriculture community, and attempts to address the concerns of some of those who have been opposed to the compact.”

The announcement comes on the heels of two Trump administration officials recently signaling their support for the proposed CSKT-Montana compact, which the Montana Legislature passed in 2015. The compact would resolve water rights claims between the tribes and other water users on and off the Flathead Indian Reservation, and reconcile Montana’s modern water doctrine with fishing rights guaranteed to the tribes as part of the 1855 Hellgate Treaty.

The bill Daines said he will introduce next week would, if passed by Congress, ratify the state compact and settle remaining water disputes between the tribes and the federal government. It would also include $1.9 billion to settle federal damage claims and to rehabilitate the deteriorating Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, which supplies irrigation to approximately 127,000 acres of agricultural land.

According to details of the proposed legislation provided by Daines’ office, the measure would also provide $10 million in road infrastructure funds to Lake and Sanders counties. Under the legislation, the tribes would relinquish the bulk of their off-reservation water right claims and be prohibited from selling water out of state.

“These negotiations have been hard. They’ve been tough negotiations,” Daines said. “I very much appreciate the concessions the tribe has been willing to make.”

The legislation would provide stability and certainty for thousands of water rights in Montana for the first time in state history, according to a statement from the tribes. Top tribal officials say they have begun reviewing the proposed bill and found it acceptable.

“This will work and get the job done,” CSKT Chairman Ronald Trahan said in a statement. “This bill will ensure the protection of vital resources while seeing to the needs of the greater community. The tribes on this reservation have worked hard to be good neighbors and sometimes that means making tough decisions which serve the entire community.”

While the text of the forthcoming Montana Water Rights Protection Act is not yet available, Daines said the bill will save taxpayers $400 million over a previous proposal brought in 2016 by Sen. Jon Tester. That measure contained $2.3 billion for damages and restoration. Daines did not support that bill, and it died in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Daines said he hopes to get bipartisan support for his new proposal.

“I’m hoping Sen. Tester will support it. We’ll be talking to his folks next week,” Daines said.

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Tester signaled initial support for the proposal.

“Today’s deal is long-overdue good news for tribes, farmers, ranchers, and Montana taxpayers,” Tester said. “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.”

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox also issued a statement in support of the settlement agreement.

“President Trump’s administration is backing the CSKT water compact and there is bipartisan support from Montana’s congressional delegation, so it’s time to get this done,” Fox said in a statement. “I am grateful to Senators Daines and Tester for their support of the compact passed by the 2015 Montana Legislature. I call upon Congress to ratify it as soon as possible.”

Fox, a Republican running for governor in 2020, opposed the CSKT compact in 2013, but backed its passage in 2015.

“I did not support the compact as written in 2013 because it did not provide sufficient protections and certainty for water rights holders,” Fox added. “My staff and I worked with all parties to bring key changes, and as a result, in 2015 the compact passed with bipartisan support.”

One of Fox’s primary opponents, Republican state Sen. Al Olszewski, of Kalispell, has been an outspoken critic of the compact. In a recent interview on the Montana Lowdown podcast, Olszewski warned that Daines’ support for the compact settlement could cost him votes at the ballot box.

“We’re going to tell Sen. Daines we’re unhappy, but how he’s going to find out is whether they vote for him or not in a general election,” Olszewski said.

Olszewski, who was campaigning at the Montana Grain Growers Association’s annual convention in Great Falls on Thursday, softened his message after seeing a press release from Daines’ office.

“I guess my gut feeling right now: it sounds optimistic, but I remain cautious,” Olszewski said in a phone interview. “Now we should be able to read the details in an actual version of this act and then we can go into the details and then start praising or criticizing the details.”

Recent negotiations over the federal settlement got a boost last month when U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, in a Nov. 18 letter to Daines, dismissed the concerns of the settlement’s opponents, stating that those concerns had been addressed during the lengthy negotiating process.

Then, during a Nov. 22 visit to Montana, Attorney General William Barr said it was better to resolve Montana’s last remaining Indian water rights settlement through the existing negotiating process, and not in the courts.

State Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, an outspoken opponent of the CSKT-Montana compact in the state Legislature, said he is optimistic about Daines’ proposed bill.

“I haven’t seen the specific legislation, but I’m very encouraged with what Sen. Daines has been able to accomplish with further negotiations with the tribes,” White said Thursday.

White said he is especially pleased with provisions that would require the tribes to relinquish off-reservation water rights and allow for future disputes to be handled in state district courts rather than federal courts.

“All of these points I’ve seen through these negotiations, I’m just very encouraged and impressed with Sen. Daines and his efforts to resolve this very divisive issue,” White said.