Daily Montanan: Fort Belknap water settlement to bring $1.3 billion for critical infrastructure

by Keila Szpaller

The Fort Belknap Indian Community said its recently approved water settlement will provide $1.3 billion for critical infrastructure, including an irrigation project on the Milk River and another project to pipe clean water to people who live on the south end of the reservation.

“After more than 30 years of negotiations with the federal government and the state, Senate Bill 1987, the Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act of 2023 — with the full support of the Montana delegation — will be the last reservation in Montana to finalize and secure its Tribal water rights,” Fort Belknap said in a memo outlining details of the settlement.

The memo noted U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines introduced the act to ratify the water rights compact with the state of Montana.

In statements, the senators said last week’s votes — unanimous and bipartisan — meant the deal was one step closer to a signature from U.S. President Joe Biden.

Daines, a Republican, said he worked hard to ensure the settlement was included in the “must-pass” National Defense Authorization Act.

“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,” Daines said in a statement. “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.”

Democrat Tester also praised the milestone in a statement from his office last Thursday as “great news for folks all across the Treasure State.”

“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,” said Tester 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 northcentral Montana the certainty they need to thrive.”

In its memo, the tribes note the settlement restores 37,000 ancestral acres back to the reservation (none of which are privately owned). Additionally, it said the settlement ratifies sufficient water rights to irrigate 34,500 acres of reservation lands.

“Once the FBIC has a recognized quantification of our Indian water rights, we may determine how to use it, including not only for irrigation, but also for domestic, municipal, commercial, industrial, cultural, recreational and other uses,” the memo said.