HELENA — The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have asked a federal judge to declare they own the rights to the water on the Flathead reservation, and they seek to block two state courts from deciding on personal water-rights claims there.
The tribes say in their lawsuit that federal treaties and laws dating from 1855 established their rights to all the water on and flowing through the northwestern Montana reservation, though the U.S. government is entitled to a volume of water for irrigators in the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project area.
The tribes want a declaratory judgment that affirms those rights and says that only Congress can establish how non-Indians acquire water rights on the reservation.
An attorney representing one of three irrigation districts named among the 14 defendants in the Feb. 27 lawsuit has asked Montana Attorney General Tim Fox to intervene on their behalf.
The tribes’ lawsuit poses “a threat to the fundamental rights, including property rights, of Montanans,” Jon Metropoulos of Helena wrote in his letter to Fox.
If successful, the tribes would “undermine all individual claims to water rights on the reservation, as well as to the state of Montana’s sovereign ownership of all the waters in the state,” he wrote.
The three state lawsuits — two in a Lake County district court and one in the Montana Water Court — and the new federal case filed by the tribes come in the wake of the state Legislature’s failure to ratify a water-rights agreement for the Flathead reservation in 2013.
That compact was agreed upon after years of negotiation between the tribes and the federal and state governments. State lawmakers shot it down amid concerns by non-Indian irrigators on and near the reservation who said the agreement gave the tribes too much control of the water.
People who are claiming personal water rights on the reservation filed the lawsuits seeking judgments on those claims through the state courts. The tribes were not allowed to be considered as parties in those legal actions, their federal lawsuit said.
The tribes are asking the federal court to block the judges in the state lawsuits from determining who owns the water rights, saying the state courts could impair the federal court’s authority and lead to inconsistent rulings.
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen.
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