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A century-long debate over water rights in the state is nearing an end, providing certainty for farmers and ranchers in southwest Montana.

The Montana Water Rights Protection Act passed the U.S. Congress this week as part of a major coronavirus relief and year-end appropriations package.

It next needs President Donald Trump’s signature, which isn’t yet certain because he objected Tuesday to some of the package. It may have to return to Congress for revisions and another vote.

Once the act becomes law, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will ratify it.

The tribes will then relinquish thousands of water rights across the state, including in southwest Montana.

In return, the federal government will create a $1.9 billion trust fund dedicated in part to maintenance of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project and will return management of the National Bison Range to the tribes.

Tribal Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant called the bill “truly historic and important” in a news release.

Without the act, more than 10,000 tribal claims for water rights could end up in court, a costly proposition that could result in limitations on irrigation in much of the state, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“If the compact had been rejected, it would have given the tribes the ability to file on all these water rights,” said state Rep. Zach Brown, a Bozeman Democrat who chaired the Water Policy Interim Committee. “Our irrigators in Gallatin County, including the city of Bozeman and all the generational farmers and ranchers, would have had to defend their water rights in court.”

Given the impact of the bill on farmers and ranchers, the Association of Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators has been advocating for years for its passage and celebrated its congressional approval this week.

“Like any good negotiation, both sides gave up a lot of ground to meet in the middle and find a solution that works for everyone,” Brown said. “It provides certainty for water rights holders because they won’t be subject to litigation from time immemorial water rights from the tribes.”

The bipartisan bill has been years in the making.

It narrowly passed the Montana Legislature in 2015 and was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

The water compact required congressional approval, so Democratic Sen. Jon Tester introduced it in the Senate in 2016. The bill failed to gain traction without Republican support.

Last year, Republican Sen. Steve Daines reintroduced it with new provisions, including the transfer of management of the National Bison Range, and Tester signed on as a cosponsor.

Daines and Tester said in a news release this week that they backed the bill because it would protect water rights, avoid expensive litigation, create jobs, improve infrastructure and benefit the agricultural industry.

The Trump administration has advocated for the bill on several occasions, including in a letter last year from U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and a statement from Attorney General William Barr.

This week, the bill also passed the House, where Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte advocated and voted for it.

Montana conservation groups have long supported the bill and celebrated its passage this week.

“It is the product of government-to-government collaboration, resulting in a fair and equitable solution for sovereign tribal governments and their lands, for Montana’s shared public lands, for bison and other wildlife, and for the precious resource of water,” said Whitney Tawney, deputy director of Montana Conservation Voters, in a news release.

Montana Trout Unlimited said the bill would provide millions of dollars for restoration of fish and their habitat in the western part of the state.

Over the years, the compact has faced opposition from some Montana Republicans who said it was based on flawed legal arguments, gave too much control to the tribes and could harm Montana landowners. Some even asked Daines to withdraw the bill from the Senate.

The bill stems from the 1855 Hellgate Treaty, which provided the tribes the right to hunt and fish in traditional areas both on and off the Flathead Reservation in exchange for relinquishing more than 20 million acres of land to the U.S. government.

Those hunting and fishing rights dated back to time immemorial, which meant they took precedence over other water rights in the state and gave the tribes a say in streams stretching from northwest Montana to the Yellowstone River Basin.

Once the bill becomes law, the tribes will hold water rights only in northwest Montana.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.