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Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes press for water deal






Flathead Lake on the Flathead Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana. Photo by Paul Frederickson

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes asked Congress to approve a water rights compact with the state of Montana but the Obama administration is balking at the price tag.

S.3013, the Salish and Kootenai Water Rights Settlement Act, would require the federal government to spend about $2.3 billion. The Interior Department can't support the bill due to concerns about the cost, a senior official told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday.

"It's a significantly higher price tag than any enacted water settlement to date," said Letty Belin, who serves as counselor to Deputy Secretary Mike Connor, the second-in-command at Interior. "It's obviously a substantial federal price tag."

Additionally, Belin said the agreement addresses an issue that hasn't been seen elsewhere in Indian Country. The compact resolves the tribe's rights to "instream" water flows to the Flathead Reservation, flows that are already in use, mainly by non-Indians.


Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Hearing June 29, 2016

"I'm not aware of any precedent for that," Belin told the committee.

Despite the high cost in the bill, Chairman Vernon Finley said it could actually be higher. The federal government owes the tribe $4 billion for violating its treaty and trust responsibilities by diverting the water, his testimony stated.

"These federal actions had and continue to have disastrous impacts on our tribal people that this legislation will finally begin to correct," Finley told the committee.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the committee, introduced S.3013 on May 26. It does not currently have any co-sponsors and there is no companion in the House.

"This hearing is just the beginning of the process here in Washington. I welcome the tribes', local stakeholders', and Interior's input so we can continue to grow support for this bill," Tester said at the hearing.

The compact remains somewhat controversial in Montana. But lawmakers approved it through Senate Bill 262 in 2015.

Get the Story:
Interior Balks At Cost Of CSKT Water Compact (Montana Public Radio 6/29)
Interior has concerns about CSKT settlement in Montana (The Great Falls Tribune 6/30)

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing to receive testimony on the following bills: S. 2796, S. 2959, & S.3013 (June 29, 2016)

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