Billings Gazette: Final Montana tribal water rights settlement clears Senate

by Alex Mitchell

The final tribal water rights settlement in Montana, the Fort Belknap Indian Community (FBIC) Water Settlement, cleared the U.S. Senate Thursday, July 27. It’s the first time any version of that water settlement has cleared the Senate despite four past introductions just since 2012.

The FBIC Water Settlement would determine tribal claims to water in an area that has been stricken with years of severe droughts in the Montana Hi-Line, and provide $1.3 billion to the reservation for infrastructure projects such as irrigation and drinking water. 

The settlement would pay to improve the  efficiency of the more-than-century-old Milk River Project. That irrigation system furnishes water for about 121,000 acres of tribal land — including the Blackfeet Reservation — along with non-tribal land.

Additionally, the settlement would restore 37,582 acres of state and federal land to Fort Belknap tribal management.

The Fort Belknap reservation has been working on settling its water rights for more than three decades. The settlement would ratify the FBIC Water Rights Compact that was agreed upon with the state of Montana in 2001.

Sen. Jon Tester. D-Montana, has sponsored versions of the settlement in past introductions in 2012, 2013, 2019 and 2021. With the 2023 introduction, the settlement received first-time bipartisan support from co-sponsor Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana.

“As a third-generation Montana farmer, I can tell you firsthand that water is critical to the success of everyone from farmers and ranchers to families and small businesses,” Tester said in a statement. “After decades of work with the Fort Belknap Indian Community, ag producers, and a wide array of Montana stakeholders, we are one step closer to giving water users in north central Montana the certainty they need to thrive. Today’s strong bipartisan vote on Montana’s final Indian Water Rights Settlement is great news for the FBIC, and great news for folks all across the Treasure State.”

“The Fort Belknap Water Rights Settlement is the last Indian water rights settlement in Montana, and I worked hard to get it included in the must-pass defense authorization bill,” Daines said in a statement. “This critical bill codifies existing water rights, prevents costly litigation, provides clean drinking water and invests in irrigation for farmers and ranchers who provide food for the whole country. It’s supported by our governor, the Fort Belknap Community, all locally affected counties and our farmers and ranchers. It is a win-win-win for Montana, and I am grateful it passed.”

The settlement passed out of the Senate as part of a unanimously approved amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA will now head into the reconciliation process as the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives seek a compromise between each body’s passed version of the NDAA. 

Both Rep. Matt Rosendale and Rep. Ryan Zinke have expressed support for the settlement.