Lake County Leader: Compact settlement delivers $157m to CSKT

by Kristi Niemeyer

In a press release last week the Department of the Interior announced the release of nearly $580 million to continue fulfilling settlements of Indian water rights claims. The largest portion – over 25% – was awarded to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which will receive $156,937,000 to fund the Montana Water Rights Protection act.

“Our elders continually remind us to protect our water and the fulfillment of these obligations will help protect the water for all generations to come,” said CSKT Tribal Council Chairman Tom McDonald. “Passage of this Compact comes after work that stretches back 40 years.”

Fulfilling the CSKT Water Rights settlement was championed by Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester, and was signed into law by former President Trump. In a statement, Tester expressed his support for the compact.

“As a third-generation farmer, I know how important it is for all of our local communities to have access to clean water,” he said. “I will continue working with the local communities, Tribes and water users to hold the government accountable and ensure the settlement is implemented effectively.”

According to Robert McDonald, CSKT Compact Implementation Officer, funding from the compact settlement has already been channeled toward projects that benefit fisheries and wildlife resources and improve Flathead Indian Irrigation Project infrastructure, operation and maintenance. Funding has also been used to help support the Flathead Reservation Water Management Board, a cost that is shared with the State of Montana.

Many of these federal dollars go toward rejuvenating the aging irrigation project, which delivers water to around 127,000 acres of reservation lands. Generally speaking, FIIP projects financed by the compact settlement include reconstruction, replacement and automation of irrigation diversion works, lining canals and replacing open canals with pipe, fencing and enhancing access to infrastructure.

The compact language also emphasizes conservation: “Specific projects will lead to water savings or improved utilization of existing irrigation project water supply sources.”

According to McDonald, some projects are already moving ahead, and include rebuilding the Jocko K canal’s headworks, converting the Jocko North canal to pipe, rebuilding a canal chute in Valley View, and modernizing the pumping plant that lifts irrigation water from the Flathead River to Pablo Reservoir.

Other projects in the planning or pre-construction phase focus on the North Fork of the Jocko River, the lower Jocko J canal, Falls Creek and the Charlo area.

The Division of Engineering and Water Resources (DEWR) program, a division of the CSKT Natural Resource Department, will oversee these projects and plans are in the works to launch a website to help the public track progress.

DEWR “has been staffing up,” says McDonald, and continues to hire engineers and hydrologists, and workers specializing in data analysis, GIS and information processing. He adds that plans are underway to provide more training opportunities and to engage young people in careers centered around science, technology, engineering and math.

“These projects will continue for many years into the future and CSKT is just getting started,” he writes.

Safety of Dams, a program that aims to upgrade the Flathead Reservation’s dams, will also receive compact funding for planning, design and construction. Projects currently underway include replacing outlets and modifying the dikes at Kicking Horse Reservoir and replacing outlet works at Mission Dam. On the horizon are improvements to Crow, Upper Dry Fork and Tabor dams.

Another key component of compact implementation is mitigation, reclamation and restoration of streams, wetlands, banks, slopes and waterways connected to FIIP. These projects include installation of screens, barriers, passages or ladders to keep fish from getting trapped in irrigation ditches and canals.

In Montana, the settlement funds also benefit the Blackfeet Nation, which received $45,279,000, and the Crow Tribe, which received $30,000,000. The resources directed to tribes across the nation come from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund and the federal Reclamation Water Settlement Fund.

When it comes to oversight and accountability, the Department of Interior’s Indian Water Rights Office is dedicated to managing, negotiating, and overseeing the implementation of these water rights settlements. In his statement, Tester vowed to continue holding government agencies – like the Department of Interior – “accountable to ensure that we’re doing right by the Tribes,” and that the bipartisan infrastructure law “is being implemented swiftly and efficiently, and the money is going exactly where it was intended.”

Compact settlement delivers $157m to CSKT | Lake County Leader (