Tester, Daines, Rosendale, Zinke, Gianforte Lead Charge to Complete Ft. Belknap Water Settlement, the Final Indian Water Rights Settlement in Montana
Senators introduce Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Settlement
Today, U.S. Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines, with the support of Representatives Matt Rosendale and Ryan Zinke, and Montana Governor Greg Gianforte, introduced the historic Fort Belknap Indian Community (FBIC) Water Settlement in the United States Senate.
The FBIC Water Settlement will ratify the FBIC Water Rights Compact with the State of Montana, provide resources for critical water infrastructure development like the completion of the Milk River Project, give certainty to both Tribal and non-Tribal irrigators and restore FBIC lands to federal trust ensuring their preservation for years to come.
“As a third generation Montana farmer, I know how important water is to folks in northcentral Montana for everything from irrigation to economic development,” said Tester. “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. This is a made-in-Montana solution, and I’m looking forward to getting this long overdue settlement across the finish line.”
“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. “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.”
“After several years of discussion, I’m glad to see the Fort Belknap Indian Community, farmers, ranchers, and local leaders come to an agreement that will strengthen Montana’s economy,” Rep. Rosendale said.
“I am proud to be a part of the Montana delegation working together and keeping our promises,” Rep. Zinke said. “A promise made should be a promise kept, let’s get this done.”
“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,” Gov. Gianforte said. “It’s time we get this done for the benefit of the tribes, our farmers and ranchers, and all water users in northcentral Montana.”
The Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act of 2023 will provide $1.3 billion to improve infrastructure and economic development for the FBIC and improve the efficiency of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Milk River Project, which furnishes water for the irrigation of about 121,000 acres of Tribal and non-Tribal land. The bill will also restore tribal management to 37,582 acres of state and federal land for the FBIC.
“We are grateful to Senators Tester and Daines for introducing our Indian water rights settlement bill and appreciate the work of Governor Gianforte and the rest of the Montana delegation for their support,” said FBIC Tribal Council President Jeff Stiffarm. “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. This bill would benefit the Fort Belknap Indian Community (FBIC) for generations to come and boost the regional economy with funding for infrastructure projects. Benefits to FBIC’s Southern and Northern Communities include new and updated irrigation projects, safe drinking water, and the ability to provide services such as stock water and agriculture projects. We need Congressional approval to finally settle our Indian water rights and secure this sacred resource for our future generations.”
The bipartisan bill is supported by the Fort Belknap Indian Community, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, and conservation groups across the state. A water rights settlement is also supported by local irrigators.
After more than a decade of negotiations, the FBIC Tribal Council approved its Water Compact with the State of Montana in 2001. The Montana Legislature approved the Compact later that spring. FBIC and Montana’s Senators have worked together for years to bring together partners to advance this critical settlement. The Compact and Settlement must now pass through Congress, be approved by a simple majority vote of FBIC members, and the Compact must be submitted to the Montana Water Court and be entered into the Montana Water Court as a final decree.
Supporters of the bipartisan bill include:
- Blaine County Conservation District
- Hill County
- Phillips County
- Valley County
- St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group
- Milk River Joint Board of Control
- Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council
- The Wilderness Society
- Montana Farmers Union
Letters of support for the bipartisan bill can be found below: