CSKT, State Officials Reach Flathead Water Deal

Water-use agreement still needs approval from state Legislature

By Tristan Scott
Beacon file photo

Montana officials have reached a new water-use agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, ensuring that irrigators and residents on the Flathead Indian Reservation have a reliable water supply while affording protections to the tribe’s rights.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox announced the agreement Dec. 11. The compact now needs approval from the state Legislature, Congress and the Northwest Montana tribes.

“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 in a statement. “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 compact, which was negotiated through the Reserved Water Rights Commission and includes recommendations from the Legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee, would establish a $30 million fund to help cover the costs for water pumping to meet agricultural irrigation demands. It also establishes a technical team whose oversight helps protect historic uses of the Flathead Indian Reservation’s water while making sure the tribe’s stream-flow targets on the Flathead River are met.

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

At the core of the dispute has been determining what amount of the reservation’s water goes to farmers, ranchers and others through the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.

After the prior agreement was rejected, Bullock and tribal leaders re-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.

Scott Reichner, a business owner and outgoing Republican member of the Legislature, was a onetime critic of the compact who voted against its ratification in 2013.

But he recently joined a coalition of farmers, ranchers and business owners who banded together to support the compact, calling its passage vital to the economy and to water users across the state.

According to Reichner, the group, called Farmers and Ranchers for Montana, threw its support behind the water compact after a bipartisan committee of legislators unanimously recommended changes that make the agreement more palatable.

The compact negotiated two years ago drew fire from property rights advocates, but Reichner says that signing a compact is better than the alternative, which could yield years of expensive litigation.

“At some point in time if we don’t have a compact, the tribe will go in and probably file several thousand court cases to gain water rights to water that they claim,” he said.

The talks, he said, have led “to a more balanced compact that can stand the test of time.”

“I have 100 percent rating with property-rights advocacy groups, and the way I look at this is that, we need to protect our property rights in the state of Montana,” Reichner said. “If we don’t have a compact, those property rights, water rights are in jeopardy.”

The Legislature has approved water compacts for Montana’s other reservations, and both Bullock and Fox urged swift passage of the new agreement.

“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.”

Bruce Tutvedt, a Republican state senator from Kalispell and one of the Flathead Valley’s largest irrigators, has introduced a joint resolution supporting the CSKT water compact process.

The resolution reads: “That when a compact is agreed to by the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and the United States, the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives of the State of Montana support the passage of the compact.”

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