HELENA — Montana senators have given initial approval to a proposed water-use agreement on the Flathead Reservation.
After two hours of discussion, senators voted 31-19 in favor of Senate Bill 262. Eleven Republicans voted with 20 Democrats in support of the measure, which was presented by Republican Sen. Chas Vincent of Libby.
The proposal reflects the results of a negotiation between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state and federal governments recognizing what supporters call the tribes’ immemorial right to the water on the Flathead Reservation, but also securing water for non-tribal residents and irrigators.
Three amendments were proposed and voted down after Vincent said any changes to the proposal itself would nullify the negotiation, which began in part decades ago.
Vincent said the negotiation process has been long exhausted since the first claims for water rights were filed.
Since a water agreement died last session in the Legislature, Vincent said the most important change has been to allow irrigators to sue for more water rights in addition to the delivery of current water levels promised in his proposal.
Republican Sen. Bob Keenan, whose district includes Flathead Lake, said he is concerned that the compact could allow the lake’s water level to drop below current summer requirements for recreation like boating.
“My concern is for my district, for the lake,” Keenan said before voting against the proposal. “That is a big issue.”
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requires that, from July 1 to Sept. 1, the lake fill to a minimum of 2,893 feet. Under the agreement, the tribes would be legally bound to keep the lake at 2,883 feet, which Keenan said is not enough to guarantee his constituents will be able to use the lake in summer.
“I was not assured that we were going to be able to get those FERC-regulated levels,” Keenan said after the Senate adjourned.
Keenan also asked whether it would be legal to appropriate money for tribal use. A provision of the Montana Constitution prohibits state funding of any religious, charitable or similar organization that is not controlled by the state.
In response, Vincent echoed an answer given by the tribal chairman during the bill’s five-hour hearing earlier this month: that the tribes are recognized by the federal and state governments as a sovereign entity.
Keenan said that did not convince him that the total $55 million appropriation attached to the agreement would be constitutional, even if the most of the money goes to irrigation outside tribal territory.
Republican Sen. Bruce Tutvedt said he trusts the legal opinions of legislative staffers and state attorneys dedicated to researching the issue who say it is the best water plan for Montana’s most water-saturated and legally protected reservation. The Kalispell senator said he voted for the bill based on the water it secures for residential, commercial and irrigation use.
“I think the tribes have done a good job of trying to be a good neighbor,” Tutvedt said. “I think it’s good for my constituents, it’s good for agriculture, so it’s good for me.”
The bill is expected to receive a final vote in the Senate on Thursday.