Proposed Water Rights Deal with Tribes Announced

By Beacon Staff

PABLO — Negotiating teams including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on Thursday announced the completion of the proposed compact regarding water rights, and that the agreement is open for review, the Missoulian reported.

That review will include a dozen meetings where public comments will be taken. The meetings will start after Thanksgiving.

Attorney Jay Weiner with the Montana Water Rights Compact Commission said the Hellgate Treaty of 1855 gives the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes a “strong legal basis to assert water rights off the reservation.”

Negotiators have attempted to resolve that and other potential conflicts, including rights the treaty gives to tribes to hunt and fish in their traditional locations.

“How are courts going to interpret that?” said Chris Tweeten, chairman of the compact commission. “The rights of tribes regarding instream flows off the reservation?”

Weiner said the proposed settlement “tries to recognize those rights in a way that balances those rights alongside the ability of people who are using water to continue to use that water.”

He said the tribes agreed not to make a water call against anyone already using water for any purposes other than irrigation. He also said the proposed compact “builds in protection for existing irrigators” and “protects existing water users throughout western Montana.”

The Montana Legislature created the Montana Water Rights Compact Commission almost 34 years ago. Negotiations started in the 1980s but stopped pending lawsuits. They eventually restarted and for eight years the various entities have met monthly to create a compact. The compact commission is scheduled to end after the Legislature adjourns next summer.

After public comments are received, the compact commission will meet on Dec. 19 to decide whether to forward the proposed compact to lawmakers for approval.

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