PABLO — Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said Congressional approval of the settlement of water rights claims in the Flathead Basin comes as a relief.
She's also sounding an optimistic note about the agreement's impact on everything from job creation to wildlife protection.
Monday's approval of the Montana Water Rights Act is a big headline all on its own.
But the impact of the federal government's agreement to the $1.9 billion settlement goes far beyond this week, opening the door to decades of far-reaching measures.
Resolution of the tribes' claims under the 1855 Hellgate Treaty didn't come easy, relying on the work of hundreds of people, from technical staff and attorneys to the lawmakers who pushed the idea across the finish line.
”It's a huge relief and I just think about the leaders before me. That and all the councils before us that you know, had the foresight to start those negotiations," Fyant said. "And you know, direct the staff to collect the data.
"We were so well prepared for this. And so it's great knowing that we're not going to have to go the litigation route. And yeah, we're just so elated today," Fyant added.
Next up, it's the tribal council's turn on how to ratify the agreement.
“We are actually waiting until the ink is dry before we have that conversation with the Council. It does say in our constitution that the Council can make that decision or they can put it out to the people, but we haven't had those discussions yet," Fyant explained.
Although much of the opposition to the Flathead Water Compact has cooled over the past decade, there are still those with concerns about the agreement's impact on farms and ranches and private property values.
Fyant points to the economic boost from the "thousands" of jobs to be created through the settlement.
“We listened a lot to those irrigator concerns, and we know that the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project has been just neglected for years, and so with this money will be able to make it more efficient of an operation. And repair some of those as well as restoring the actual fisheries," Fyant told MTN News.
"You know the bull trout is an endangered species and so you know that's one of our main concerns because the bull trout again was one of our mainstays," Fyant said.
Perhaps that will be the most interesting thing to watch in the decades ahead and how the settlement reshapes the future, based upon the shared legacy of this special place.
In addition to avoiding the expense of costly litigation, backers of the agreement also point out it will head off future environmental challenges that could have closed elements of the Flathead's irrigation systems.