Montana Standard: Fort Belknap tribal water settlement bill sees first-time bipartisan support

by Alex Mitchell

Montana congressional leaders are reintroducing a $1.3 billion Fort Belknap water settlement bill to the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support for the first time. 

The settlement would bring new water from the Missouri River, provide safe drinking water, and enable projects to improve long-neglected water systems on the Fort Belknap Reservation along the Milk River.

“We have worked extensively with our tribal community, Milk River water users, other irrigators, the Department of Interior, and the State of Montana to negotiate the settlement of our Indian water rights,” Fort Belknap Indian Community Tribal Council President Jeff Stiffarm said in a press release. “This bill would benefit the Fort Belknap Indian Community for generations to come and boost the regional economy with funding for infrastructure projects.” 

Fort Belknap is the last Montana reservation without a water settlement, with the Flathead Reservation having just approved the largest water rights settlement in the nation for $2.1 billion last year. 

The reservation is home to rights established by the 1908 U.S. Supreme Court case Winters v. United States after a dispute between tribal and non-tribal irrigators on the Milk River. The court held that a reservation had established rights to water based on promises of creating a “permanent homeland.” Under the ruling established by the case, dozens of tribes across the U.S. have entered into water settlements to define their water rights and to secure federal funding for water development projects.

Fort Belknap agreed to begin negotiations around their water rights in 1981. The Montana Legislature approved a water compact that would quantify their water in 2001. The Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act of 2023 would ratify that compact.

This is Sen. Jon Tester’s fifth time introducing the water settlement after introductions in 2012, 2013, 2019 and 2021. It never made it out of committee those years. This time Tester will be introducing the bill with unprecedented bipartisan support after pushing for it alone in previous introductions. Sen. Steve Daines will help introduce it in the Senate alongside Tester with the backing of Gov. Greg Gianforte, Rep. Ryan Zinke and Rep. Matt Rosendale. 

“After years of work with the Fort Belknap Indian Community, farmers, ranchers, local leaders and a wide array of Montana stakeholders, I’m proud to reintroduce this revised FBIC water settlement which will give certainty to all water users in the region,” Tester said in a press release. “This is a made-in-Montana solution, and I’m looking forward to getting this long overdue settlement across the finish line.” 

Other parties that previously opposed the settlement now support it, too. Revisions led to past opponents of the settlement like the Phillips County commissioners writing a letter of support in March.

Water settlements seek to restore tribal management of state and federal land. The revised settlement would restore 37,852 acres to the tribes. 

The removal of a parcel of roughly 15,000 acres of land in the settlement is what led to the county commissioners’ support. The land was formerly held by the tribes in the Little Rocky Mountains where the vacated and toxic Zortman and Landusky gold mines now preside south of the reservation.

The removal of the land and subsequent support by Phillips County commissioners helped lead to the first-time pledging of support by Gianforte back in March. 

“This bipartisan bill is the result of extensive coordination between the State of Montana, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, and the federal government, with valuable input from local leaders, farmers, ranchers, and other water users over many years,” Gianforte said in a statement around the bill’s introduction. “It’s time we get this done for the benefit of the tribes, our farmers and ranchers, and all water users in northcentral Montana.”

In interviews earlier this year, tribal leaders said they were pushing for the settlement more than ever before. The reservation has faced years of successive, exceptional repeated droughts in the Montana Hi-Line affecting water scarcity all across the region. 

Additionally, the Supreme Court heard a case on tribal water rights in Navajo Nation v. Arizona in March as the American Southwest goes through its worst drought in centuries. The case could upend the Winters case that has obligated the government to meet tribes’ current and future water needs. Fort Belknap signed onto a briefing in support of the Navajo Nation in February.

The Fort Belknap settlement would provide funding for new sewage systems, irrigation improvements, rehabilitation of reservoirs and for a dam on the Milk River. 

The bill is also supported by other nearby counties, the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, Milk River Joint Board of Control, Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, The Wilderness Society and Montana Farmers Union.

“After years of effort and good faith negotiation, it’s time to pass our bipartisan bill to resolve Montana’s final Indian water rights settlement,” Daines said in a release. “I am grateful to Montana Tribes and communities, our farmers and ranchers, local leaders and diverse water users in the region for their input during this process that helped us arrive at a solution that will provide certainty, much-needed infrastructure improvements, and protection of the rights of all water users in northcentral Montana.”

Bipartisan support for tribal water settlement bill (