The Montana Water Rights Protection Act signed into law with president’s signature on federal appropriation bill and ratification by the CSKT Tribal Council

Editor's Note: This article has been updated with minor corrections and updates.

Char-Koosta News

PABLO — Time crawls by until it’s passed, then it has flown by. Such is the case of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Federal Reserved Water Rights Compact (FRWRC), officially known as the Montana Water Rights Protection Act (MWRPA). 

After decades of discussions and official negotiations with the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission (MRWRCC), the CSKT’s FRWRC was signed into law by the president of the United States Sunday, December 27.

On Tuesday, December 29, the Flathead Nation Tribal Council unanimously voted to ratify the MWRPA.

What remains now is some perfunctory formalities, including a sign-off by the Secretary of Interior; appointment of a Federal implementation team; negotiation of agreements and process to allow for the transfer of federal settlement funds to the Flathead Nation for implementation and CSKT management; implementation of the FRWRC; and a Decree of Compact and CSKT water rights by the Montana Water Court.

The Montana Water Rights Protection Act’s $1.9 billion settlement was a rider in $1.4 trillion fiscal year 2021 federal budget that also includes $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus bill. The MWRPA also includes the CSKT management of the National Bison Range

The MWRPA, officially known as Senate Bill - 3019 had the support of the Montana U.S. Congressional delegation, the Department of Justice, the Department of Interior and the President Trump Administration, as well as the Governor Steve Bullock Administration and the Montana Legislature.

“We greatly appreciate the Montana Congressional Delegation,” CSKT Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said after the MWRPA was passed by the Senate and forwarded to the president as part of the federal budget bill. The president had already indicated his support so it was essentially a done deal that got done, Sunday. “From Senator Tester’s initial introduction of the bill four years ago, to Senator Daines’ introduction, amendments and work with the Trump Administration this year and to both of our Senators urging their respective leaders to include the bill in the omnibus appropriations bill, and to Congressman Gianforte’s work with the Minority Leader in the House, all played pivotal roles and the residents of Montana should be thankful for their efforts. Governor Steve Bullock must also be thanked, along with Tim Fox and many, many more.”

“This victory has been decades in the making, and is a huge win for Montana taxpayers, ranchers, farmers, and the tribes,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said. “Water is among our most valuable resources, and ratifying this compact, honors our trust responsibilities, creates jobs, and invests in infrastructure while providing certainty to water users everywhere. I’m thankful we were able to work together to get this critical legislation across the finish line.” 

His fellow Montana Senator, Steve Daines (R-Mont.) also expressed satisfaction that the long journey to resolution of the CSKT FRWRC has finally come to an end.

“After years of hard work, the U.S. Senate just passed our bipartisan bill that permanently resolves the century long CSKT water dispute and will soon become law. Without our bill, thousands of Montanans would be forced into very expensive litigation and our ag economy would’ve taken over a one billion dollar hit,” Sen. Daines said upon the MWRPA passage in the Senate and headed for the signature of the president. “That’s why we’ve worked so hard to pass our bill that protects the water rights of all Montanans, saves taxpayer dollars, creates jobs, modernizes rural infrastructure projects, protects Montana agriculture and prevents very costly litigation. This is a win for all Montanans.”

The third leg of the Montana Congressional delegation also chimed in favorably on the resolution of the CSKT FRWRC.

“I am glad we were able to get this done to bring certainty to Montana’s farmers, ranchers, the Salish and Kootenai [T]ribes, and all the water users across the state,” said Republican Montana Governor-elect and for a few more days U.S. House Rep. Greg Gianforte. “Thank you to my colleagues in the Senate for their work on this legislation.”

Upon learning of its passage, others including many from the agricultural community chimed their support.

“Thank you to Senator Daines and Senator Tester for their leadership and continued perseverance for a permanent water settlement,” said Jim Steinbeisser, president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. “An additional thanks goes to Representative Gianforte for his stewardship in the house. The success of Montana’s agriculture industry is dependent upon water and water rights certainty. It is easily the single most important resource for people across Montana, which is why MSGA has long supported an agreement such as the Montana Water Rights Protection Act.”

Tim Burton, Executive Director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, said. “The passage of the Compact will benefit all of Montana, while providing certainty and protecting senior municipal water rights for many of our members.”

Mike Murphy, Executive Director Montana Water Resources Association, stated, “Passage of the Montana Water Right Protection Act provides for settlement of the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes water right claims that are crucial to providing certainty regarding adjudication of Montana water rights. Passage of this important settlement legislation will prevent costly litigation, protect water rights throughout Montana, and very importantly, recognize and protect Montana’s primacy over our water resources. We extend our appreciation to Senator Steve Daines, Senator Jon Tester, and Congressman Greg Gianforte for their support and efforts to enable passage of this important legislation.”

Walt Sales, President Association of Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators, said, “On behalf of the Association of Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators (AGAI), I wish to express our enthusiastic appreciation for the passage of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act. Senator Daines’ continual work and never say never attitude will be enjoyed by many of us here at home. Senator Daines understands the value in this equitable solution, but rest assured the irrigators in the Gallatin Valley will be able to tell the story of a Montana solution that kept agriculture alive and focused on daily chores for generations rather than looking back on the dark days of litigation, telling the story of lost opportunities. From our 400+ irrigating members, THANK YOU, for a well-fought, positive outcome from Washington D.C., proving Montana’s work ethic value.”

The MWRPA also had a lot of opposition, and much of that opposition has been focused on Republican Senator Steve Daines, SB - 3019 sponsor.

After the presidential signing, a group of conservative Montana legislators, led by House Majority Leader Brad Tschida (R-Missoula) issued a statement chastising the bill and Daines. It reads, “In a clear betrayal of our state and of President Trump, Senator Daines slipped the CSKT Water Compact into the coronavirus relief bill, despite his legislation having nothing to do with coronavirus. With a less than 5 percent chance of being enacted, the deceptively-named Montana Water Rights Protection Act was added at the last minute. This went against his oath of office in which he swore on the Bible to protect the constitution. This was a sad day for the people of Montana and showed blatant disregard for the will of the People.”

The CSKT FRWRC was first introduced in the Montana Legislature in 2013 but it didn’t get out of the House Judiciary Committee. 

A second introduction in 2015 at the Montana Legislature was ratified. Senator Jon Tester, (D-Mont.) carried the bill to the U.S. Senate in 2016 but it didn’t have the backing of the Obama Administration due to, among other things, its $2.3 billion price tag and Sen. Daines backing due to that and other concerns of his.

Following tweaks to the original FRWRC bill including cutting its cost to $1.9 billion, renaming it the Montana Water Rights Protection Act and other things to sate the concerns of Senator Steve Daines, (R-Mont.) he introduced the bill in this Senate session.

However, it’s been a long journey prior to its recent passage by the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, and the president’s signature, followed by the Tribal Council’s ratification.

Details of the MTWRPA/FRWRC:

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