Local Lawmakers Craft Proposed Water Compact

By Beacon Staff

There’s a new proposed water compact to forever settle the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ water rights on and off the Flathead Indian Reservation making the rounds with western Montana county commissioners.

The 2013 Montana Legislature failed to pass the original water compact for CSKT, which had been in the works for a decade and needed approval from the state, the tribes and the U.S. Congress. The state House of Representatives killed two bills aimed at passing the document, one that would have ratified the water compact and another that would have studied the settlement’s potential impacts for two more years before ratification.

It is the first time the Legislature has rejected a negotiated compact from the Montana Reserved Water Rights Commission since the commission’s inception in 1979.

The proposed compact, presented to the Flathead County Commission on June 27, comes courtesy of a group called Concerned Citizens of Western Montana, and was also authored with the help of Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, Rep. Jerry O’Neil, R-Columbia Falls and Ronan-based businessman and former state lawmaker Rick Jore.

Jackson and Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, explained the reasoning behind the new document. Jackson was a vocal opponent of the original settlement during the Legislature, saying lawmakers needed more time to consider the lengthy document.

He also noted that the CSKT compact would have been the only compact in the state to allow off-reservation water rights, a point he reiterated during Thursday’s meeting with the Flathead County commissioners.

His proposed compact throws out the idea of off-reservation rights, Jackson said, and attempts to quantify the amount of water the reservation needs, an aspect he said the tribes have not provided.

The proposed compact would acknowledge that the state does have jurisdiction to administer water resources on the reservation for state-based users, Jackson said, instead of placing such users under the authority of a board created by the Unitary Management Ordinance.

The original compact targeted irrigators, Jackson said, and sought to undermine state authority in waterways off the reservation.

“The bottom line is power, not water,” Jackson said.

Commissioner Gary Krueger said he did not like the way the original settlement was presented to Flathead residents because they felt they had no say in the negotiations, and he asked if the tribes had been included in this new proposed compact.

Jackson said the tribes had “not officially seen” the new document, and Krueger said that it is imperative to have CSKT on board or else it will be presented to them in the same manner the original settlement was presented in the Flathead.

“There’s got to be some consensus from the tribe,” Krueger said.

Regier said the proposed compact is still in its infancy, and the authors would appreciate feedback and strategy tips from the commission.

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