County Commission Harbors Concern for Water Compact

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead County commissioners met with a group of citizens who are concerned about the proposed water rights compact coming from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state and federal governments, saying the parties involved seem to be rushing to push it through to the Legislature.

The water rights compact for the Flathead Indian Reservation has been in the works for years. A compact is a negotiated agreement that settles the reserved water rights of tribes and federal agencies within the state. Since 1979, the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission has settled the compacts for the state’s other six reservations; the CSKT compact is the final one.

A settlement on water rights would determine how the tribes’ water rights are defined, both the “time immemorial” aboriginal rights and the federally reserved rights.

In June, the Beacon reported that negotiators were trying to finalize the proposed compact in time for the 2013 Legislature. The parties involved released the proposed water rights compact on Nov. 8., which filled in the sections of the Oct. 3 version.

Now, the commission is seeking comment on the document, with public hearings scheduled to explain the compact and to take public comment (see sidebar for schedule).

The comments will be considered and the compact commission will meet on Dec. 19 to decide whether to submit the document to the Legislature for approval.

This schedule has irked the concerned citizens who visited the county commissioners’ chambers last week to discuss the compact. The group, led by St. Ignatius resident Terry Backs, said the schedule doesn’t give the public enough time to digest the compact in its entirety, and how it might affect the water rights off the reservation.

Commissioner Dale Lauman agreed.

“I think it’s a rush to get it to the Legislature,” Lauman said during the meeting.

Backs said the compact will likely award more water rights than any other compact in Montana and the country, and she is worried about the landowners who will be removed from state oversight to a new board.

Part of the reason the CSKT compact has been so complicated is the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, which created the reservation and retained the hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering rights throughout the tribes’ aboriginal territory.

The language in the treaty, upheld in federal court, reserves the “right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places, in common with citizens of the Treaty,” which has been interpreted to mean that the tribes have non-consumptive rights to the water to maintain streamflows that support fisheries.

This territory expands across much of western Montana, and the proposed compact would quantify the off-reservation CSKT water rights.

Lauman said the tribes would assume 90,000 acre-feet of the water in the Hungry Horse Reservoir if the compact is approved, and they are also expected to take over the Kerr Dam as well.

As a lifelong resident of the Flathead, Lauman said this conflict has been around for decades. Commissioner Pam Holmquist said the board plans on sending a letter to the compact commission before the Nov. 27 meeting in Kalispell, outlining the commissioners’ concerns and about how quickly they think the process is going.

For more information, including copies of the proposed Compact and Ordinance, visit, www.dnrc.mt.gov/rwrcc/Compacts/CSKT/Default.asp and www.cskt.org/tr/nrd_waternegotiations.htm. Email [email protected], or contact Rob McDonald, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (406) 675-2700 ext. 1222 or Bill Schultz (406) 542-5880, or Jay Weiner, (406) 444-6844, Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission.

Submit written comments on the proposed compact or ordinance to Mr. Chris Tweeten, Chair, MT RWRCC, 2705 Spurgin Road, Building C, Missoula, MT 59804 or email to [email protected].

Public Meeting Schedule

LIBBY – Nov. 26; 7 p.m. Location: City of Libby – Ponderosa Meeting Room, 952 East Spruce St.

BIGFORK – Nov. 27; 1 p.m. Location: Bethany Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall (Basement), 8559 MT HWY 35

KALISPELL – Nov. 27, 2012; 7 p.m. Location: Outlaw Inn Hotel Winchester Room, 1701 US HWY 93 South

POLSON – Nov. 28; 9 a.m. Kwa TaqNuk Resort, 49708 US HWY 93 East

HOT SPRINGS – Nov. 28; 3 p.m. Salish Senior Center, 214 N. Spring St.

THOMPSON FALLS –Nov. 28; 7:30 p.m. Thompson Falls High School Band Room, 601 Golf St.

ARLEE –Nov. 29; 10 a.m. Arlee Senior Center, 106 Wessinger St.

HAMILTON– Nov. 29; 3 p.m. Ravalli County Administrative Center, Third Floor Conference Room, 215 South 4th St.

MISSOULA– Nov. 29; 7:30 p.m. Double Tree Edgewater, Blackfoot Room, 100 Madison

DEER LODGE– Dec. 4; 9 a.m. Powell County Community Center, 416 Cottonwood Ave.

PHILIPSBURG– Dec. 4; 2 p.m. Granite County Museum, 135 N. Sansome St.

OVANDO –Dec. 4; 7:30 p.m. Ovando School Gym, 108 Birch St.