The uncertainty and expense that would be prevented by implementing the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (“CSKT”) Water Compact is one of the many reasons the Water Policy Interim Committee recently decided to encourage Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and the members of our congressional delegation to act on the negotiated agreement.
Most do their best to avoid situations where the outcome is unknown – and rightfully so. Uncertainty, regardless of what type, can have potentially catastrophic impacts for both governmental entities as well as individuals, which is why it’s critical that the CSKT Water Compact is ratified.
The compact, which is a contractual legal agreement between the state of Montana, the federal government, and the CSKT, settles the legal claims of the tribes by defining their federally reserved water rights. By defining these rights through the compacting process, rather than through litigation, decades of costly, unnecessary, and time consuming legal battles are avoided.
Avoiding this expense not only saves individuals, taxpayers, and the state of Montana millions of dollars, but it provides much needed certainty for water right holders. Without the compact, uncertainty and litigation will abound.
If the compact is not ratified, the CSKT are obligated by state law to move forward with their legal claims to define their federally reserved rights in the Montana water court. The CSKT claims, numbering in the thousands and covering approximately two-thirds of Montana, are considered valid unless proven otherwise. Action on these claims will force existing water users to defend their water rights in court.
However, because most tribal water rights carry a priority date of 1855 or “time immemorial” — both of which pre-date many, if not all, of the existing rights held by Montana’s farmers, ranchers, and irrigators — it will be nearly impossible for an existing water right holder to successfully defend their right. With the compact, there would be no need for litigation in the first place and Montana water users could avoid these costly court battles altogether. This is why ratifying the compact is crucial.
Immediate action must be taken to move this agreement forward and provide legal certainty for the thousands of farmers, ranchers, landowners, and water users who have been left wondering whether they will have water for their crops or cattle. The decades of costly and unnecessary litigation are avoidable, but only if the compact is ratified.
The compact calls for federal ratification within four years of state ratification. Since state ratification occurred in 2015, that date is quickly approaching in 2019. That is why we call on Congress to prioritize this critically important matter for the state of Montana and provide our water users, farmers, ranchers, cities, towns and tribes with the certainty and finality they need to plan and invest in the future.
We hope that our outreach to Secretary Zinke and the members of our congressional delegation helps spur collaboration and communication between their respective offices on what needs to be done to move this vital agreement forward.
Sen. Pat Connell represents Senate District 43 and serves as the chairman of the Montana State Legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee. Rep. Zachary Brown represents House District 63 and serves as the Vice Chairman of the Water Policy Interim Committee.