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2024 Montana Primary elections
Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Will 'Adaptive Management' Put Flathead Water Compact Fears To Rest?

Pipes gushing water.
Public domain.

Today we continue our coverage of the proposed water compactnegotiated by the federal government, the state of Montana, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The compact itself is expected to be over a thousand pages long; it’s still being drafted. The road to this point stretches back over 35 years of negotiations. And it’s clear from the reaction to our coverage that people have strong feelings about it.

In short, this story is an elephant, and we’re going to eat it, one bite at a time. No single story can present every viewpoint. We aim to present as many viewpoints as we can. We’ve begun by talking to the people who drafted this compact. In future reports, we’ll hear from opponents of the compact as well.  
In a moment, I’ll explain how you can contribute to our coverage of this issue.

Today we hear from Rhonda Swaney, an attorney for the tribes of the Flathead reservation. As one of the authors of the new compact, she’s proud of what the latest round of negotiations has produced.

“I think it’s a very good compact, it’s fair to everyone. There are some more details in this compact that weren’t in the first one," Swaney says.

Many of those extra details deal with things like the “adaptive management” approach, which links water management to ongoing, long-term measurements of the region’s water supply. But Swaney says “the numbers haven’t changed” since the last compact was negotiated two years ago.

“There were two extensive independent technical reviews done. Both found the compact and the model that was used to generate the numbers very adequate, and there was also a legal review done to answer legal concerns from the public. That review found the compact legally acceptable.”

She says “adaptive management” means the water supply in and around the Flathead reservation will be monitored continuously, to make sure everyone’s water rights are fulfilled.

“If changes are dictated, we make those changes. So for example, if there is a climate change, and runoff occurs a lot easier or earlier, we’ll be able to accommodate those changes into the water use compact.”

Part of the reason this compact is so complicated, and so much more controversial than other compacts in Montana, is that it also governs tribal fishing rights outside the Flathead  reservation boundaries, rights granted in the 1855 Hellgate Treaty with the US Government.  Rhonda Swaney says the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes actually gave up some of their off reservation fishing rights to get this deal.

“We did it because we want the compact to pass. That doesn’t mean we’ve lost everything. And certainly even though the water rights aren’t maybe not adequate at every point we would like them to be, we still have the treaty fish and hunting rights intact. We believe the state of Montana will protect natural resources as well, and that we can exercise those treaty rights even without a water right in some of those smaller tributaries," Swaney says.
In 2013 an earlier compact died in the Montana Legislature. Swaney says it was introduced too late in the session, and its supporters didn’t have time to make their case. Critics say it was not just a matter of timing, but that the compact was constitutionally flawed.  

Lawmakers, Swaney says, were bombarded with complaints that the compact was a “taking” of property rights. Swaney says the tribe has spent two years trying to resolve those objections.

“Most of the legislators didn’t have a chance to dig into the compact in depth in 2013. We’ve spent two years trying to help them do that. Where there were public comments or comments from the water policy committee we tried to address those and make a compact that would be comfortable for everyone.”

We will find out whether Montana lawmakers are comfortable with the new pact in the upcoming session, starting January 5.

In the meantime, if you have an opinion about the proposed water compact, we’d like to hear it. If you know someone whose life or livelihood might be affect by the water compact, leave a comment on our website,  connect with us on Facebook, or send an email to

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