Tester’s Bill to Finalize the Fort Belknap Water Compact Clears Key Hurdle, Heads to Senate Floor

Senator’s bipartisan legislation unanimously passes Senate Indian Affairs Committee

After more than a decade of work to finalize Montana’s last water settlement, U.S. Senator Jon Tester’s bipartisan bill to finalize the Fort Belknap Water Compact today passed through the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, setting it up for a full vote on the Senate floor.

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, the Montana delegation, state legislators, federal agencies, irrigators, and local stakeholders. The legislation will prevent costly litigation by resolving outstanding water rights claims between the FBIC, the State of Montana, and the federal government, provide infrastructure for clean drinking water and irrigation for the Fort Belknap Indian Community, and complete the rehabilitation the Milk River Project in order to provide water certainty to residents across North Central Montana. The Fort Belknap Water Compact is the last water settlement to be finalized in Montana.  

“As a third generation Montana farmer, I know firsthand just how important water is to every community in the Treasure State,” said Tester. “After decades of hard work from the Tribe, state legislators, irrigators, and local agencies—this bill will finally give certainty to water users in northcentral Montana. Today’s vote is a huge step forward for folks that rely on water for their crops, communities, and small businesses, and together we’re going to get it across the finish line.”

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 38,462 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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