Tribal Water Rights Compact Moving Forward

By Beacon Staff

The water rights compact for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes is headed to the Montana Legislature for consideration, while a district court lawsuit regarding one aspect of the compact has been stayed until the state Supreme Court issues a ruling.

Both mark considerable steps forward for the compact, which has been languishing for the better part of a decade with the Montana Water Rights Compact Commission.

The nine-member compact commission sought to finalize a settlement that would forever settle the water rights of the CSKT, on and off the Flathead Indian Reservation. All six of Montana’s other tribes have completed a compact.

The commission met on Feb. 26 and voted to forward the compact to the Legislature for consideration. Ratification is contingent on the approval of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project (FIIP) Water Use Agreement by the CSKT and the Flathead Joint Board of Control, which is the subject of a lawsuit in Lake County District Court.

The lawsuit, filed by the Western Montana Water Users Association, claims that the Flathead Joint Board of Control and other irrigator associations are violating state law as they negotiate the water compact.

In mid-February, District Judge C.B. McNeil ruled in favor of the Western Montana Water Users Association, a decision that was then appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.

Though the tribes are not a party in the lawsuit, they requested that the high court step in and take control of the proceedings. They issued the request on Feb. 26 and received a reply from the Supreme Court on Feb. 27 staying all action in the case, according to CSKT communications director Rob McDonald.

“Evidently, the Montana Supreme Court felt the matter was of such a significance that the high court issued a ruling in less than 24 hours after our filing,” John Carter, an attorney for the tribes, said in a prepared statement.

The water compact has been the subject of much debate at public hearings. The Flathead County Commission drafted a letter to the compact commission opposing the compact before the Feb. 26 vote, and several hearings have been held in the commissioners’ chambers featuring members of the public concerned about the compact’s potential impacts.

One of the main concerns expressed at these meetings is the idea that the compact has been revised so many times that people aren’t entirely clear of the document’s intent or purpose.

If the state Legislature ratifies the agreement, it will be sent to the U.S. Congress for approval. CSKT also has to give final approval of the document before it is submitted to the Montana Water Court.

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