Tester’s Bill to Finalize Fort Belknap Water Compact Gets Historic Senate Hearing

The Senator’s Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act will honor trust and treaty responsibilities, guarantee water certainty for communities across North Central Montana through the rehabilitation of the Milk River Project

U.S. Senator Jon Tester’s bill to finalize the Fort Belknap Water Compact received a historic hearing today in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Tester’s Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act is the product of more than a decade of work by the Senator in collaboration with Tribal leaders, state legislators, federal agencies, irrigators, and local stakeholders to rehabilitate the Milk River Project in order to provide water certainty to residents across North Central Montana, while resolving outstanding water rights claims between the FBIC, the State of Montana, and the federal government. 

The Fort Belknap Water Compact is the last water settlement to be finalized in Montana. 

“This is a historic day for the Fort Belknap Indian Community and for folks across North Central Montana,” Tester said in his opening remarks. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: water is life. Water is necessary for our crops, for our businesses, for our homes, and for the environment that we all rely on.”

Tester continued: “The bipartisan Settlement we are looking at today is the result of years of negotiations between the Tribes, local elected officials, irrigators, state legislators, federal agencies, and other stakeholders to hammer out a fair compromise that honors our trust and treaty responsibilities while guaranteeing water certainty to all water users in North Central Montana through the rehabilitation of the Milk River Project. This is the last water settlement left to be finalized in the Treasure State. We’ve got to get this done because in Montana, we make good on our promises, and we work together to find common ground.”

The Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act 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.

The bipartisan bill is supported by the Fort Belknap Indian Community, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, and conservation groups across the state. The 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 worked 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
  • Bear Paw Development Corporation
  • Blaine County
  • Montana Farm Bureau
  • Montana Stockgrowers Association
  • State Representative Paul Tuss

Letters of support for the bipartisan bill can be found below:


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