Tribes, State Continue Water Compact Negotiations as Legislative Session Approaches

Tribes present strategy for managing and allocating water on and off the 1.3-million acre reservation

By Dillon Tabish

The clock is ticking as state, tribal and federal negotiators focus on redeveloping a water-rights compact for the Flathead Basin in time for the upcoming Legislature, when lawmakers could decide the fate of a bitter battle extending from the Flathead Indian Reservation across Northwest Montana.

At a meeting in Polson on Oct. 15, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes aimed to clarify their plans for carrying out the compact, which would dictate how the tribes manage and allocate water for instream and reservoir users on and off the 1.3-million acre reservation.

The tribes presented a list of priority rehabilitation and improvement projects, including upgrades to nearly 80 miles of canal piping and several pumping sites that would reduce seepage and other lost water and improve irrigation efficiency, according to the tribes.

“We’re trying to improve irrigation practices on the farm that benefit both stream flow conditions and water uses and also benefits irrigators with upgrades to efficiencies and practices,” said Seth Makepeace, a hydrologist for the CSKT.

The proposal included a detailed look at the tribes’ “Adaptive Management” strategy for managing natural streams and the expansive canal network of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project (FIIP), which provides vital water supplies to roughly 127,500 acres on the reservation.

Makepeace said the Adaptive Management strategy would create a flexible system for managing river diversion allowance (RDA) levels each year based on available water supply. RDA levels refer to the volume of water that is allowed under the water compact to be diverted or pumped from various water sources for use in the FIIP.

By rehabilitating or upgrading select sites, the tribes will be able to maintain existing and historic water levels, even through dry years, Makepeace said.

Makepeace presented the details of the adaptive management strategy at a public negotiating session involving the CSKT, members of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission and an official from the U.S. Department of the Interior. The event attracted a large crowd at the Best Western KwaTaqNuk Resort.

Gov. Steve Bullock authorized the commission to enter into limited negotiations with the CSKT to clarify a water-use agreement between the tribes and irrigation districts in western Montana, an agreement that would be part of the overall compact.

“We were authorized by the governor to go back and talk about changing the compact in order to make sure provisions were similar to other protections, and to make sure irrigation projects got the water they needed to continue to operate historically,” said Chris Tweeten with the state’s Water Rights Commission.

He added, “I haven’t been authorized to say this, but I remain optimistic that we’re going to be able to rebuild the compact and put it into a condition where we can submit it to the Legislature for consideration in the 2015 session.”

The state will respond with questions and comments on the CSKT presentation at another public meeting in Missoula on Oct. 27.

The meetings are expected to wrap up before January, when the Legislature will convene in Helena with the water compact being one of the most significant decisions on the table.

The intent of the compact is to forever clarify and quantify the tribes’ water rights both on and off the Flathead Indian Reservation, while protecting existing uses and rights for farmers, ranchers and other users. It requires the approval of the state Legislature before Congress can approve the agreement into perpetuity.

The 2013 Legislature tabled the tribes’ proposal and now the 2015 Legislature has one final chance to pass the compact before CSKT members are eligible to assert their water rights by filing claims in a state stream adjudication court by June 30, 2015.

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