Uncertain Fate for Flathead Tribal Water Compact

By Beacon Staff

Earlier this week a legislative committee heard hours of impassioned testimony from supporters and opponents of a proposed tribal water rights compact that would affect the Flathead Indian Reservation and much of western Montana.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is considering other legislation that would postpone a final decision on the water agreement, while the outcome of a pending Montana Supreme Court case on one component of the settlement could also influence the compact’s fate.

The March 27 House Judiciary Committee hearing was packed both inside the state Capitol committee room and outside in the hall with irrigators, landowners, attorneys and residents there to comment on the proposed water rights agreement.

The intent of the agreement – called a compact – is to forever clarify and quantify the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ water rights both on and off the Flathead Indian Reservation, while protecting existing uses and rights. The off-reservation component is unique among the state’s tribal water settlements.

The House committee took no immediate action on House Bill 629, which proposes to ratify the compact and calls on the state to pay $55 million for water projects on the reservation, including $30 million in improvements to the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.

The Legislature, U.S. Congress, tribal government and Montana Water Court must all approve the settlement, a process that could take years and begins with the Legislature first taking action.

A long line of irrigators and landowners spoke in opposition to the compact, with some arguing that the public needs more time to understand the vast document and that the agreement needs to be tweaked before final approval.

Some irrigators said they will receive less water after the compact, which could significantly damage their livelihoods. Opponents also said the compact could potentially restrict future development.

But proponents – including a number of irrigators – also flooded into the hearing, arguing that detractors’ concerns are being driven by misinformation and that the settlement is ready to be ratified after a decade of negotiations.

They maintain that years of scientific research, data compilation and public meetings have produced an equitable agreement that is a much better alternative than letting the issue play out in litigation – which they say will inevitably occur without a compact.

Tribal members, including elected officials, spoke in favor of the compact, as did members of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, which has negotiated compacts with the state’s six other reservations. And an attorney representing Gov. Steve Bullock offered “strong support from the governor’s office.”

The compact commission is trying to finalize its last remaining final compact before it expires this year, though Kalispell Sen. Verdell Jackson has proposed a measure to extend the commission so it has more time to work on the Flathead compact. Jackson’s proposal would move the commission’s expiration date from July 1 of this year to July 1 of 2015. The commission was established in 1979.

Jackson’s Senate Bill 265 cleared the Senate by a vote of 31-19 in February and then was moved forward by a 10-6 vote in the House Natural Resources committee last week. The Kalispell Republican spoke in opposition to ratifying the compact at the March 27 hearing.

Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, originally proposed a bill to ratify the compact but dropped it because he didn’t think it had enough support to pass the Legislature. He then introduced an alternative bill calling for a two-year legislative study of the compact, with ratification to occur in 2015.

But the Ronan Republican also spoke at the March 27 hearing in favor of ratifying the compact now. He says he is in a unique position to comment on the agreement as an elected representative from Ronan, an irrigator and a member of the compact commission.

Rep. Kathleen Williams, D-Bozeman, proposed HB 629 after Salomon announced he wasn’t going to introduce his bill.

“You’re hearing opponents say we need more time, we need more time, but not really any suggestions,” Williams said at the hearing. “So you wouldn’t know as a compact commission what to change. I think all of the criticisms have been addressed. I understand that it’s scary, but I do think the compact is ready.”

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