Why We Support the CSKT Water Compact
Justice for Montana’s Indigenous people, the preservation of working farms and ranches, and wildlife habitat are at stake
Update (Dec. 11, 2019): Today, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines introduced the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, which would ratify the CSKT Water Compact and restore management of the National Bison Range to the CSKT. We commend both Sens. Tester and Daines for introducing the bill, and we're pleased that the legislation will also enable the CSKT to manage the National Bison Range. This corrects an injustice, of the range having been taken away from the CSKT, and it gives the tribes the opportunity to incorporate the range into its rich network of conservation areas.
In the mid 19th century, the federal government systematically removed three tribes -- the Bitterroot Salish, Upper Pend d’Oreille, and the Kootenai -- from their land and forced them to sign a treaty creating the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. The reservation is now home to those tribes, a home much reduced from their original territory, which covered all of western Montana and parts of Idaho, Wyoming, and British Columbia. Since that treaty was signed, these three tribes have been united governmentally as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).
Hundreds of thousands of acres these three tribes ceded to the United States as part of the treaty are today public lands.
The treaty did guarantee water rights to the CSKT throughout that former territory. However, the federal and state governments violated those rights again and again in the decades following the treaty by creating diversions and buildinng a poorly-maintained irrigation project, which resulted in damages to many riparian areas and fisheries.
In 2014, after decades of negotiation, the CSKT, the state, and the federal government came to an agreement, called the CSKT-Montana Water Compact, that recognizes the tribes’ water rights and protects water uses on and off the Flathead Reservation. To go into effect, the compact must be ratified by the Montana State Legislature and the U.S. Congress. In 2015, with bipartisan support, the Montana State Legislature did just that, ratifying the water compact and fulfilling its legal obligation to the Tribes. Federal legislation that will ratify the compact would also settle the government’s liability for CSKT’s water-related damages due to the past 150 years of mismanagement of those rights.
Recognizing that the public lands and waters we enjoy in western Montana are the direct result of the forced removal of Indigenous people and of a subsequent treaty that the U.S. government has broken again and again, MWA stands with the CSKT in strong support of the compact.
But time is running out.
The CSKT has filed their water claims in Montana’s state water court. However, those claims are on hold until January 10, 2020 because of the compact negotiation and ratification process. Because Congress will not have ratified the compact by that date, roughly 10,000 claims will be decided in court, costing Montana farmers, ranchers, and the CSKT millions of dollars – unless the state water court agrees to further stay its proceedings. Farmers and ranchers would almost certainly lose in these court proceedings because the CSKT have claims that obviously pre-date non-Indigenous farmers and ranchers.
Should Congress fail to ratify this compact, many working ranches and farms in western Montana could very well go broke from having to litigate their water rights in court and then losing those rights. This result would not only devastate the livelihood of dozens of families, it would also imperil the open space, critical wildlife habitat, and migration corridors that ranches provide. We could lose an integral piece of Montana should this compact fail.
If the compact is ratified, ranchers and farmers would not have to spend any money in court and would gain sufficient water rights agreed to in the compact to continue operating. The compact must be ratified, and MWA is committed to standing alongside the CSKT and alongside ranchers we partner with in places like the Ruby Valley.
Our congressional delegation needs to hear from you that ratifying the compact is absolutely essential for helping rectify long-standing injustices the federal government perpetrated against the Bitterroot Salish, Upper Pend d’Oreille, and the Kootenai; for saving hundreds of Montana families from financial ruin; and for preserving habitat our wildlife depend on.
In 2016, Sen. Jon Tester sponsored a bill to ratify the water compact. Please contact him to thank him for his leadership on this issue and to ask him to reintroduce the bill.
In addition, we ask you to call Sen. Steve Daines and Congressman Greg Gianforte, who have not yet stated their position on the compact, to ask for their support of the compact as well.
- John Todd, deputy director