From The Montana Free Press (Chris Aadland):
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council unanimously ratified its water compact with the state [December 29, 2020], clearing the path for rehabilitation of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project and return of the National Bison Range to tribal control.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes ratified their water compact with the state on Tuesday, ending a decades-long process to settle water right claims affecting a huge swath of Montana’s irrigated land.
The U.S. Congress ratified the compact — passed by the Montana Legislature in 2015 — last week as part of a massive appropriations bill. President Donald Trump signed the bill on Sunday, leaving ratification by the tribes as the final hurdle to finalizing the agreement.
The CSKT Tribal Council unanimously voted to ratify the agreement on Tuesday during a meeting held via Zoom.
With the tribes’ ratification, the federal government will create a $1.9 billion trust fund for repairing the deteriorating Flathead Indian Irrigation Project. Additionally, the tribes will regain control of the National Bison Range.
In exchange, the tribes agreed to relinquish claims to the vast majority of their off-reservation water rights claims, which could have limited irrigation in 51 of the state’s 85 adjudication basins. The CSKT had filed thousands of claims based on the tribes’ 1855 Hellgate Treaty with the federal government, by which the tribe retained the right to hunt and fish in traditional locations both on and off the present-day Flathead Reservation in exchange for ceding more than 20 million acres of land.
A tribal spokesman didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday afternoon. But after Congress approved the compact last week, CSKT Tribal Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said during a press conference that the agreement would have a “profound and positive impact on the future of the Flathead Reservation for the next century.”
The compact had languished since Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, introduced legislation to ratify it in 2016. Montana’s other U.S. senator, Republican Steve Daines, introduced a bill late last year, co-sponsored by Tester, to finalize the compact.
Groups including the Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Agricultural Business Association and Association of Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators have said finalizing the compact would offer certainty for irrigators, protect the state’s water and help avoid years of costly litigation…
On Tuesday, another tribal attorney, Rhonda Swaney, encouraged the Tribal Council itself to ratify the compact in order to prevent any attempts by “outside entities” to further challenge the agreement, pointing to the Republican legislators’ letter to Daines as an example.