News & Features

Libby Senator Introduces Flathead Tribal Water Compact Bill

Lawmaker hopes to clarify misunderstanding over controversial water rights bill

State Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, this week introduced a contentious bill to ratify the state water rights compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, providing lawmakers a detailed explanation of how the water compact works in an effort to better inform the Legislature.

The CSKT water compact is expected to be one of the most significant and far-reaching decisions the state Legislature makes this session.

Vincent, who represents Senate District 1 and chaired the legislative panel charged with reviewing the compact for the past 18 months, said he hopes lawmakers can have an educated discussion about the complex measure, which has been at the center of negotiations between the state and tribes for the past decade.

The compact was negotiated through the Reserved Water Rights Commission and includes recommendations from the Legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee, which Vincent chaired, but needs approval from the state Legislature, Congress and the Northwest Montana tribes.

Much of Vincent’s 140-page Senate Bill 262, introduced before the 2015 Montana Legislature on Feb. 3, contains the language of the compact, though he is also distributing an explanatory packet of information on the compact to all 150 Montana legislators. He said he hopes the packet will help clear up misunderstandings that have beset the compact in controversy.

The bill 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 session 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. Critics say it gives too much control to the tribes and doesn’t provide safeguards to existing water users, a point of contention that supporters dispute.

After the prior agreement was rejected, Gov. Steve 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.

The compact negotiated two years ago drew fire from property rights advocates, but proponents of the new compact – including some farmers, ranchers and lawmakers who opposed the earlier bill – say the latest version contains major improvements, and that signing a compact is better than the alternative, which could yield years of expensive litigation.

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

The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Vincent said he believes lawmakers will support the compact after taking time to understand its finer points and details.

His packet also explains the consequences the state faces if the measure fails, including a deluge of litigation by the tribe over their water rights in the state Water Court, which would cost the state millions of dollars to defend.