Tester introduces historic Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Compact | News

Compact will provide certainty for water users, boost economy, protect irrigators’ rights

U.S. SENATE – U.S. Senator Jon Tester introduced the last Montana Tribal water rights settlement to the United States Senate — the The Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act of 2021.

The Fort Belknap Indian Community (FBIC) water rights settlement will ratify the FBIC water compact with the State of Montana, establish resources for critical water infrastructure development, provide for Tribal and non-Tribal irrigation rights, and return sacred FBIC lands to federal trust. Tester first introduced the settlement in 2012.

“This historic Compact will provide certainty for Tribal and non-Tribal water users in Northcentral Montana, boost our economy by investing in water infrastructure and rural development, and protect the rights of irrigators,” said Tester. “This Compact will prevent costly litigation and protect our most valuable resource, and I’m proud to join Tribal members, farmers, ranchers, sportsmen and women, and small businesses who have worked for decades to get this legislation signed into law.”

The Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act of 2021 will provide $683 million to improve infrastructure and economic development for the FBIC and improve the efficiency of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Milk River Project, which furnishes water for the irrigation of about 121,000 acres of Tribal and non-Tribal land. The bill will also restore Tribal management to 58,553 acres of state and federal land for the FBIC, and protect current non-Tribal irrigators on Peoples Creek.

Tester’s bill is supported by the Fort Belknap Indian Community and conservation and sportsmen groups across the state. The water rights settlement is also supported by local irrigators.

After more than a decade of negotiations, the FBIC Tribal Council approved its Water Compact with the State of Montana in 2001. The Montana Legislature approved the Compact later that spring. FBIC and Tester have worked together for years to bring together partners to advance this critical settlement. The Compact must now pass through Congress, be approved by a simple majority vote of FBIC members, and be entered into the Montana Water Court as a final decree.

“We are grateful for Senator Tester’s continued support for our Water Rights Settlement Act,” said Fort Belknap Indian Community President Andrew Werk Jr. “The Act will provide needed water infrastructure on our Reservation, certainty for Montana water users, and economic opportunities that will benefit the entire region.  Settling our Treaty-based Indian water rights is long overdue.  The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed our water rights on the Milk River more than 100 years ago in the “Winters” case that also affirmed water rights for many tribes and their homelands.  Then, almost 20 years ago, the Montana Legislature overwhelmingly approved our Water Compact on a bipartisan basis.  The Act builds on the Compact to fully settle our water rights and avoid litigation.  The Act is an important step forward for the Fort Belknap Indian Community and water users throughout the region.” 

“This settlement will provide certainty for irrigators, support the development of important water infrastructure and spur economic development in the region,” said Milk River Joint Board of Control Project Manager Jennifer Patrick.

“For more than 150 years, the U.S. government repeatedly violated the water rights and mismanaged the water resources of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes, allowing some of those resources to become contaminated by gold mining,” said Montana Wilderness Association Deputy Director John Todd. “This legislation will provide certainty for water users and restore land that is sacred to tribal members that had been part of their reservation until gold was discovered. We look forward to working with Senator Tester and Fort Belknap Indian Community to right a historic wrong.”

“After more than a century, it is time for Congress to address the inequitable treatment faced by the Fort Belknap Indian Community by enacting the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act,” said Wilderness Society Director of Wilderness Policy Paul Spitler. “This important legislation will resolve tribal water rights, support tribal economic development, and restore to tribal ownership land that was unjustly removed. We look forward to working with Senator Tester, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes, and Congress to see that this vital legislation is improved and enacted into law.”

“Senator Tester deserves credit for advancing this important water rights settlement,” said National Wildlife Federation Acting Regional Executive Director for Western Water Sarah Bates. “This will begin to correct historic wrongs and bring certainty for both Tribal and non-Tribal water rights holders.”  

“This proposal will continue to provide critical water to irrigators, landowners, and the Tribes,” said Montana Wildlife Federation Executive Director Frank Szollosi. “We are also grateful to Tribal leaders for their commitment to protecting hunting and fishing access by non-Tribal citizens and making this proposal a real win for all Montanans.”

As a former Chairman and long-time member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Tester is a steadfast champion for Tribes and Montana water users. He originally sponsored the Blackfeet Water Compact in 2010 and guided it to the President’s desk to be signed into law in 2016. He also sponsored the Crow Water Compact, which was signed into law and ratified in 2010. Last Congress, after a year’s long push by Tester, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Water Compact was signed into law by President Donald Trump.