The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are celebrating the long-awaited final approval of a $1.9 billion water rights settlement. Signed this week by US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the water compact resolves tribal claims to waterways throughout Western Montana and authorizes funding to upgrade 1,300 miles of canals known as the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.
The agreement, which was originally approved last year, is the largest settlement amount ever awarded in an Indigenous water rights case. In addition to solidifying water rights, it also provides funding for habitat restoration and transfers control of the National Bison Range to the tribes.
The Flathead watershed rights debate stems from the 1855 Treaty of Hellgate, which created the Flathead Indian Reservation. The CSKT brought forth an argument that the treaty gives them exclusive water use and fishing rights to up to 10,000 waterways throughout the state. Rather than argue the claims individually, the settlement provides a compromise between the state and the tribes and establishes the Flathead Reservation Water Management Board, composed of members appointed by both the tribes and the governor of Montana.
Although the settlement includes relinquishing many off-reservation water-rights claims, the agreement is a victory for Indigenous rights. “Our elders continually remind us to protect our water and this day marks the beginning of the water compact implementation that will protect the water for all generations to come,” said CSKT Chairwoman Shelly R. Fyant in a statement.