CSKT, State Officials Reach Deal Over Flathead Water Rights Compact

The compact needs further approvals from the state Legislature

By Dillon Tabish

Montana officials have reached a new agreement on a water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox announced Thursday.

Fox and Bullock said the new compact will protect the tribe’s rights while ensuring irrigators and residents on or near the Flathead Indian Reservation have a reliable water supply.

“I’m pleased that an agreement has been reached that respects tribal rights, while ensuring that irrigators and residents in the region continue to have access to a reliable water supply,” Bullock said of the agreement. “The Compact is the result of constructive negotiations where all parties sought common ground in the best interests of the state and Tribe. I’m confident that the legislature will recognize the importance and fairness of this agreement.”

The agreement would set up a $30 million fund in part to pay for water pumping to meet irrigation demands.

It also establishes a technical team that includes irrigators to put into effect provisions of the compact that protect historic uses of the reservation’s water while also making sure the tribe’s stream-flow targets on the Flathead River are met.

The compact needs further approvals from the state Legislature, Congress and the northwest Montana tribes.

“Over the last several months, we have been heavily involved in discussions amongst stakeholders,” Fox said. “My primary concerns have been that the Compact be constitutional and that it guarantees irrigators receive sufficient water to continue farming today and in future generations. This Compact, which is significantly better than the previous one, does both. After long and difficult negotiations, the state, the Tribes, and the federal government have reached an agreement that is good for Montana. I urge our legislators to carefully review and ratify it.”

The Montana Legislature last year rejected a prior agreement that was the product of more than a decade of negotiations. At least four lawsuits have been filed since then over claims to the water flowing on or through the reservation.

Those cases are still pending.

How much of the reservation’s water goes to farmers, ranchers and others through the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project has been at the core of the dispute.

After the prior agreement was rejected, Bullock and tribal leaders opened negotiations that were limited to agreements between the tribes and irrigation districts in western Montana.

The 2015 session is the final chance for lawmakers to approve a compact with the tribes. If they fail, the tribes will have to assert their water rights by filing claims in a state stream adjudication court by June 30, 2015.

The Legislature has approved water compacts for Montana’s other reservations.

A call to the tribes’ communications director, Robert McDonald, was not immediately returned.

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