HELENA — Senator Steve Daines said a newly-developed settlement would bring a permanent solution to the dispute over tribal water rights claims in Western Montana, in a deal worth upwards of $2 billion.
The settlement, which forms the framework of a new agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, would replace the pending Flathead Water Compact.
News of the agreement came Thursday after recent statements from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and US Attorney General William Barr gave new indications of movement in the dispute, which had been stalled at the federal level for the past four years.
Sen. Daines said the agreement contains multiple elements to resolve the dispute over tribal water claims dating all the way back to the Hellgate Treaty of the 1850s.
Under the settlement, Sen. Daines says the tribe would relinquish 97 percent of water rights claims with prejudice, meaning the dispute couldn't be revived through litigation at a later date. Of the remaining rights, 2.7 percent would be co-owned with the State of Montana, with the remaining .3 percent reserved for fisheries and wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation.
Additionally, the settlement would give CSKT $1.9 billion in damages, providing hundreds of millions of dollars to rehabilitate the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, and $10-million for road and infrastructure improvements in Lake and Sanders counties.
Sen. Daines said the settlement would avoid an estimated $400 million over alternative proposals giving "all water users across Montana protection and certainty."
The settlement reaffirms Montana's constitutional claims the state's waters belong to all residents "for common benefit". It would also protect the ability of non-tribal and tribal members to bring water rights disputes to state court for resolution. That had been a point of contention during the long debate over the Flathead Water Compact.
The Montana Republican plans to introduce the Montana Water Rights Protection Act next week, and Daines said he'll be working with Senator Jon Tester to get his support to push the Act through Congress.
The announcement marks an entirely new direction in the dispute over the tribal water rights claims, and would replace the Flathead Water Compact, which had been approved by the Montana Legislature in 2015.
Sen. Daines said if the settlement is approved, it wouldn't require further consideration by the Montana Legislature.
CSKT Tribal Chair Ron Trahan released a statement praising the settlement saying "this will work and get the job done." Senator Jon Tester, who made the first attempt to get the Compact through Congress in 2016, is also praising the development and its bi-partisan support.