Lake County Leader

by John McLaughlin

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are set to receive more than $1 billion this year to settle water rights claims through the newly signed U.S. bipartisan infrastructure law.

For fiscal year 2022, the final allocation was announced Tuesday by Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland.

Haaland said the department will allocate $1.7 billion overall toward enacted tribal water rights settlements via President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law signed last November.

Of that sum, CSKT will be getting a final allocation this year of about $1.02 billion per the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, according to an Interior Department spreadsheet.

“This announcement is historic, not just for the CSKT water compact but for Indian water rights settlements across the West,” CSKT Chairman Tom McDonald said in a CKST press release issued Thursday.

Initially approved by the state in 2015, the landmark CSKT-Montana water compact garnered federal ratification years later in 2020 as the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, sponsored by Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Democrat Sen. Jon Tester.

Shortly thereafter, the CSKT Tribal Council itself approved the compact. Haaland penned final approval of the deal last September.

The compact relinquished the tribes’ claim to most off-reservation waters.

CSKT then received 211 water rights on the Flathead Reservation, 10 water rights outside of the reservation and co-ownership of 58 other claims, according to past Inter Lake reporting.

In partnership with the state, the tribes have since formed the Flathead Reservation Water Management Board, which carries final authority for all water dealings on the reservation.

Yet lacking key staff, the board is not yet processing existing or new water rights.

The landmark compact also returned to CSKT via trust the 19,000-acre National Bison Range, which remains open to the public.

The settlement provides a $1.9 billion trust to settle claims and modernize the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project. It also relinquishes federal liens on irrigators and provides $10 million in road infrastructure funding to Lake and Sanders counties, according to Inter Lake archives.

“With full funding secured for the Crow, Blackfeet and CSKT settlements, as well as the elimination of a major hurdle in the ultimate passage of the Fort Belknap compact, this is a big win for Montana,” McDonald said. “We are grateful for the leadership of Sen. Tester in securing this funding in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Legislation and Secretary Haaland’s efforts to swiftly allocate funds amongst existing water settlements. This week’s announcement amplifies the commitment and hard work of Montana’s leaders like Sen. Tester, Sen. Daines, Gov. Gianforte, Gov. Bullock and Attorney General Fox, to name a few.”