The 1979 Montana Legislature passed legislation requiring the state to negotiate a quantification of the water rights claimed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) as prescribed in the 1855 Hellgate Treaty. The CSKT water compact is the result of the negotiations between the state of Montana, the CSKT and the federal government. This document with supporting legal abstracts is over 1,200 pages long and took six years of intense negotiations.
While negotiations were intense it becomes apparent that the CSKT, the state of Montana, its citizens, county governments, and irrigators have many shared values. A common value is for the healthy rivers and streams we enjoy within Western Montana. The CSKT’s off-reservation claims for in-stream flows are equal to those flows currently held by the Montana Fish and Game. Clean vibrant watersheds with a healthy fisheries is a shared goal that the CSKT, Montana and all of its citizens desire for Western Montana.
Second, we all want a vibrant irrigated agriculture industry both on and off the reservation. The CSKT reservation needs to rebuild its irrigation infrastructure. Most of the $55 million the tribe will receive from the state of Montana will be used to build ditches and infrastructure to efficiently deliver water to the on-reservation irrigators.
The CSKT water compact has little to no impact on all existing water rights in Montana. State compact negotiators strived to create a compact model in which no claim holder will ever face a water call as a result of the compact. Only in an extreme “record” drought year could a Flathead County irrigation water user’s water be called/curtailed. Urban and residential users will never face a call if the CSKT water compact pact is ratified. Development and jobs in Western Montana will go on unimpeded with certainty to existing water right owners and makes water available for future beneficial uses.
As a businessman I would always prefer negotiation over a court battle to settle issues. A long and expensive court battle will ensue if the CSKT water compact is not ratified by the 2015 Legislature. The state of Montana, its cities, counties and all current and future water users will find themselves in an uncertain world – in court – with the undesirable, antagonistic position of protecting their current water claims. The water claim protests will be done from a position of weakness.
If the non-ratification of the Klamath Falls compact gives insight, the legal wrangling could last over 30 years and cost millions of dollars. The economy of Western Montana will suffer from the uncertainty of unclear water rights and extensive legal battles. Forcing the courts to determine the qualification of tribal water rights will cause very real, long lasting damage to the economy of western Montana.
The various groups and politicians that oppose the negotiated CSKT water compact are very loud and have intimidated many conscientious citizens and businesses from publicly supporting the CSKT compact. However, it is becoming more apparent every day the tide is turning as more water users study and understand the ramifications of the two choices.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.