Flathead Lake

A paddleboarder explores the shore of Wildhorse Island in Flathead Lake. A negotiated compact to quantify CSKT water rights in the region was approved by the 2015 Montana Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock.

KURT WILSON/Missoulian

In Montana, we pride ourselves on treating strangers as friends and solving problems as neighbors. Like most Montanans, I was raised that when a disagreement arises you work together to find reasonable common ground. The CSKT Water Compact and the federal settlement legislation that would ratify the agreement are, in many ways, prime examples of Montanans doing what we do best — treating each other fairly and working together to get things done.

As a result of laws passed by the Montana Legislature, the CSKT were required to seek definition of their federally reserved water rights, either through litigation or through the compact process. Rather than move forward with costly litigation that would span decades and create unnecessary turmoil between neighbors, the CSKT sacrificed many of their claims to water both on and off the Flathead Reservation in order to put in place an agreement that would ensure the needs of water users across our state are met.

The agreement, which was negotiated between the CSKT, the state of Montana, and the federal government, involved stakeholders from across Montana and took decades to negotiate.

The compact, which now awaits ratification by Congress as part of the settlement legislation introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, not only defines and protects the water rights of the tribes, but also of existing water right holders. Without the compact, many of Montana’s water users — farmers, ranchers, irrigators, and even municipalities — would have been subject to the adjudication process.

In addition to the water right certainty the compact provides, its ratification would mean significant investment in our state’s economy.

Tester's legislation

The legislation introduced by Tester seeks to both settle the claims of the CSKT against the federal government and ratify the water compact. Settlement of these claims would require the government to compensate the tribes for the damages that the federal government’s negligence has caused to tribal lands, waters, and communities.

Approval of this legislation would mean federal funding for the projects and improvements outlined within the compact, including efficiency improvements for water delivery systems, modernization of water measurement equipment, and much more.

Above and beyond the provisions of the compact, this legislation would approve funding for hundreds of projects that would revolutionize our water delivery systems. The settlement legislation will rehabilitate neglected wetlands and invest in our agricultural resources by constructing improvements to irrigation systems, improving livestock fencing, working to control the spread of noxious weeds, and installing screens or other barriers to keep our canals clean and our water flowing — and it will create thousands of jobs in the process.

6,330 jobs forecast

A recent study released by Cascade Economics concluded that the federal investment from the proposed legislation would create 6,330 jobs and generate $52.9 million in recurring, annual economic activity in Montana, not to mention another estimated $774 million in economic activity in the first decade of implementation.

Opportunities like this don’t come along often. To take advantage of the incredible benefits to our state offered by both the compact and the federal settlement, we must ensure that Tester’s legislation moves forward in Congress.

As this landmark legislation progresses, I hope all members of our Congressional delegation are able to support the legislation, the jobs it will create, and the certainty it would bring to our state.

Tom Beck of Helena served is a past president of the Montana Senate and served as chief policy adviser to Gov. Judy Martz. He is a co-chair of Farmers and Ranchers for Montana.

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