Native Americans Win Historic Water Battle
The Indigenous Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have reached a historic $1.9 billion water rights settlement with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, resolving thousands of tribal claims to waterways in Montana. The largest of its kind, this agreement authorizes funding to modernize the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, a 1,300-mile network of aging canals. It also provides funding for habitat restoration and transfers control of the National Bison Range to the tribes. The dispute stems from the 1855 Treaty of Hellgate, which created the 1.25-million-acre reservation.
The agreement establishes a Flathead Reservation Water Management Board to govern water use within the reservation. Two members of the board will be chosen by the tribe, two will be chosen by the governor of Montana and a fifth will be chosen by the four appointed members. Tribal Chairwoman Shelly R. Fyant says, “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.”
Ryan Rusche, an attorney for the tribes, says, “The settlement provides water to fulfill the purpose of the reservation, which is a permanent homeland for the tribes, while at the same time protecting existing non-Indian uses of water on the reservation where there is a significant irrigation-based economy.”