Flathead Water Management Board Selects Fifth Member

Georgia Smies, a biologist and educator at Salish Kootenai College, joins board charged with overseeing Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ water compact

By Tristan Scott

The newly minted board charged with overseeing water rights on the 1.3 million-acre Flathead Indian Reservation has appointed its fifth member, setting the stage to begin managing one of the region’s most valuable assets under the Flathead Water Compact.

Last month, the four appointed members of the Flathead Reservation Water Management Board convened their inaugural meeting to discuss the rules for granting, managing and enforcing water rights on the reservation that is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).

On Feb. 2, during the board’s second official meeting, the appointed members selected Georgia Smies to join as their fifth, leaving the final appointment to the Secretary of the Interior, who will select a sixth, ex officio member, to complete the board selection process. 

“I consider this a great honor to serve on the board. My career has evolved around the study of our natural resources, and I expect to draw on that lifetime of work to carry out my responsibilities,” Smies, a wildlife and fisheries instructor at Salish Kootenai College who previously worked as a water quality specialist, said in a prepared statement. “Like so many others I have watched the evolution of the water compact and I’m excited and feeling blessed to work with a very talented team.”

The Board meets next on Feb. 10, with the focus on hiring an engineer who will head an office to accept and process requests related to water use on the Flathead Indian Reservation, according to officials with CSKT and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). The engineer’s office will evaluate requests and present to the board with recommendations.

The four board members who were previously appointed include Roger Noble, a Kalispell geologist who also serves on the Flathead City-County Health Baord; and Kenneth Pitts, a Polson geologist who teaches water law at the Salish Kootenai College. Both of those appointments were made by Gov. Greg Gianforte. Two other appointments by the CSKT Tribal Council include Tribal Services Director Clayton Matt, the former head of the CSKT Water Rights Negotiation Team; and Teresa Wall-McDonald, director of the Salish Kootenai College’s Human Resources Department.

The Board is the exclusive regulatory body for water rights administration on the Flathead Reservation, including the issuance of new water rights, making changes to existing and future rights, and the enforcement of water rights. It’s formation was prompted by the ratification of the Flathead Water Compact, which resolved an age-old conflict over water rights on the reservation and which tribal leaders hailed as “one of the most significant days in the history of our people.”

The compact resolved a problem created by the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, which granted the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes influence over vast portions of the Flathead, Clark Fork, Blackfoot and Kootenai river watersheds. Last December, Congress approved a $1.9 billion deal wherein the tribes dropped their claims to off-reservation water rights in exchange for control of surface and groundwater on the reservation.

Pursuant to the rules outlined in the compact, the newly formed board is made up of two members appointed by the Montana Governor and two members appointed by the CSKT Tribal Council; the four appointed members are then charged with selecting a fifth member, while Interior Secretary Deb Haaland must select a sixth.

Board meetings are held in partnership between the DNRC and CSKT. Recordings of meetings and notice of future board meetings will be posted on the DNRC Compact Implementation Program and CSKT Water Rights websites.

For more information, visit the DNRC website at http://dnrc.mt.gov/divisions/water/water-compact-implementation-program/confederated-salish-and-kootenai-tribes-compact and the CSKT Water Rights website at https://csktribes.org/index.php/water-rights/flathead-reservation-water-mgmt-board.

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