Commission Votes to Send New Letter to State About Water Compact

Letter outlines county concerns as negotiations on the compact continue

By Molly Priddy
Beacon file photo

The Flathead County Commission held another contentious hearing in its chambers, this time focusing on a letter it will send to the governor regarding the state’s water compact with the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The Oct. 23 hearing was a short event, much to the dismay of many in the audience. Public comment was limited to 15 minutes before the 9 a.m. hearing, and many of the people who spoke during that time bemoaned the lack of a longer public comment session.

A two-hour hearing had been planned for Oct. 22, but was removed from the commission’s agenda by Commissioner Pam Holmquist, who is the chair for the board, due to logistical concerns based on the commissioners’ chambers not having enough space for the amount of people expected at the hearing.

With that hearing canceled early last week, the Oct. 23 hearing was a relatively last-minute addition to the agenda, but it still garnered a crowd large enough to fill the commission’s chambers.

At issue was a letter the commission drafted to send to Gov. Steve Bullock, which outlines multiple questions and concerns the commission has and would like answered as negotiations on the compact continue.

The concerns from the letter are as follows:

  • Our current residential, commercial and municipal water rights should be recognized and protected from all in the future. Negotiations for the compact should ensure adequate water is available for future growth in western Montana.
  • Our agricultural economy needs a stable and secure water supply free from conflict to ensure high quality and plentiful crop and livestock production.
  • It is our desire that State Water policy makers should engage in negotiations and avoid litigation. To this end, adopted water policies should protect Flathead County and its citizens from the need to uphold their water rights.
  • Environmental water needs must be considered in order to protect the aquatic system so important to our fisheries, recreation and tourism. The cultural heritage of ALL Montanans includes protection of our aquatic system for our generation and those to come.
  • Basin closures should be avoided, and legally available water for future use in basins now restricted should be acquired through negotiations. We must ensure that Flathead County is not prohibited from growth by a failure to acquire water from basins such as Hungry Horse Reservoir. Our development future depends on the acquisition of water that is currently legally unavailable within the Federal Reserve system. Please ensure this acquisition is part and parcel of a final solution to the water issue.

Many familiar faces spoke to the commission about the water compact on Oct. 23, including local current and former lawmakers. Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, reiterated that he has been attending meetings on the water compact for several years now, and he still has concerns about the compact as it is written.

He urged the commission to reconsider sending the letter to the governor.

“This letter is poorly written,” Jackson said. “It could be interpreted as supporting the compact.”

Former lawmaker Derek Skees also asked the commission not to send the letter, calling the compact “regulation without representation” and unconstitutional.

Bill Myers of Bigfork was also against the letter because it did not specifically support or oppose the compact. He also asked the commission to hold a full day of public comment on the compact.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, said the commission is right to draft and send the letter, and that it is “timely and appropriate.”

“You should talk to the governor,” Tutvedt said. “(The letter) asks questions the people have.”

The CSKT and the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission are currently undergoing negotiations on the compact, having held a mid-October meeting in Polson and planned an Oct. 27 meeting in Missoula.

The goal is to have the compact ready for approval for the 2015 Legislature, which starts in January.

It was with these current negotiations in mind that Commissioner Gary Krueger said he wrote the recent letter.

“I drafted this letter as a time-sensitive item that I believe needed to go before our state negotiator of water rights,” Krueger said during the hearing.

The letter is not an endorsement or a non-endorsement, he said, because the compact is still a living document and he won’t support or oppose a document that isn’t finalized.

Krueger also said public comment needs to happen after the compact is completed, which did not sit well with the audience, who vocally rebuked his statement with shouts of “no.”

Commissioner Cal Scott apologized to the crowd for the lack of time for public comment, but said the letter addresses relevant issues of concern for Flathead County.

Holmquist said she believes Flathead County’s elected officials are making the county’s concerns known during the negotiations, and that Krueger’s letter points out good questions. She would not support it, however, unless it was amended.

In the sentence reading, “It is our desire that State Water policy makers should engage in negotiations and avoid litigation,” Holmquist wanted to add “try to” before the words “avoid litigation.

She also wanted to remove a section of the final paragraph of the letter, which reads “… continues negotiations free of racism, partisan politics, and with a desire to avoid protracted litigation,” and add instead “we believe a compact should be negotiated, but don’t support the compact as currently written.”

Holmquist made a motion to amend the letter, but it died for lack of another commissioner seconding the motion, which she said was “unfortunate” because she would have to vote against the letter.

Krueger said he didn’t think they should take out the section on racism, and asked Holmquist to support the letter regardless. She then said she was confused as to why Scott wouldn’t support her amendments, because he has said in the past that he is against the compact as it is written.

Krueger reiterated that the compact is still under negotiation, and he believes that if the commission says it opposes it, it would give the impression that the commission opposes any compact.

The commission voted to send the letter 2-1, with Krueger and Scott in favor and Holmquist opposed.

To read a copy of the commission’s letter to the state, click here. .

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