MISSOULA — We're still short of final action.
However, that proposal for a nearly $2 billion plan to settle tribal water rights in the Flathead Basin took a major step forward on Wednesday.
Trump Administration officials tell the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee the proposal could avoid decades of litigation and save taxpayers billions of dollars.
It was just over a year ago Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) introduced the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, a sweeping bill that aims to resolve decades of dispute over treaty water rights for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
It's not cheap at $1.9 billion but would see the tribes permanently relinquishing their water claims in return for a massive package that would improve fish and wildlife habitat, make vast improvements to the Flathead's irrigation system and create a huge surge in jobs.
Sen. Daines told his colleagues getting to this point hasn't been easy.
"Negotiated with the tribe, local leaders, farmers and ranchers, state legislators, county commissioners, the Administration, and other key stakeholders, to find the solution," Sen. Daines said. "One that permanently settles the CSKT water dispute, protects the water rights of all Montanans, and avoids costly litigation."
"There is a saying in water settlements, 'first in time, first in line.' It's hard to get ahead of Native Americans as far as being first in time," Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) added. "And so, consequently, we need this. We need this water settlement for Montana. We need it for predictability. We need it for certainty. We need it to be able to grow our economy."
And the economic impact is massive. The U.S. Department of the Interior told Sen. Daines estimates are, without the settlement, Montana agriculture could suffer a $1.3 billion hit through thousands of litigated water claims that could take decades to go through water court.
"Additionally this settlement will support, approximately, over 500 jobs, permanent jobs. As well as almost 5,000 temporary construction jobs that will be set forth by this legislation," Tim Petty, the Department of the Interior assistant secretary said.
Sen. Tester, who had similar legislation that stalled four years ago, wanted to know if the Administration was now satisfied over the question of sharing costs of the settlement.
"These last number of years has really been a cooperative agreement and cooperative work with both the Reclamation, with multiple meetings in getting together, as well as the Indian Water Rights Settlement Team," Petty said.
The committee left the record open for additional information over the next two weeks.
Sen. Daines says he'll amend the original bill to include language clarifying accountability for all that spending in the years to come.