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Libby Lawmaker Educates Colleagues On Flathead Water Compact

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Steve Jess
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This past weekend, about 40 of Montana’s state legislators did something unusual. After a very busy week, they stuck around when they could have gone home.

They spent close to three hours on a Saturday morning in the old Supreme Court chamber of the capitol, at the invitation of Republican Senator Chas Vincent of Libby.

“I’m not running around asking for individual senators or representatives to support this bill at this point," said Vincent. "What I’m doing is asking for their time to evaluate it."

Vincent is the sponsor of the bill to ratify the mammoth Water Compact between the State of Montana, the US Government, and the tribes of the Flathead Reservation. Vincent organized this unusual weekend meeting to give his colleagues a chance to hear about the controversial agreement, from the people who wrote it.

“Because without a proper evaluation of what is actually in this compact, particularly what is not in this compact, we’re not going to be able to have an educated policy discussion.”

It’s the only tribal water agreement that remains un-ratified in Montana, and it has generated strong opposition because it’s long, it’s complicated, and it deals with water rights both on and off the Flathead Reservation.

Promptly at 10:00 a.m. Vincent gave a few opening remarks and passed the microphone to Melissa Hornbein, one of the state’s negotiators.

“As most of you probably known in 1972 we had a constitutional convention which resulted in a new constitution for the state of Montana," Hornbein began, and then for two hours she and another negotiator outlined the history of the negotiations, and hit the main points of the proposal. Then it was time for questions. About a dozen lawmakers voiced their concerns about the compact.

“I’m still not quite clear on it, I mean it’s a very big complicated issue, and it’s a very big complicated document.”

“I wonder if Miss Hornbein would explain a little bit about the Unitary Management Ordinance and the board.”

“Is Idaho dealing with this issue as well? Because our original Montanans in this section may not have been limited to the border we have today.”

“Describe what the relationship is between the tribal and irrigation project priority dates and what that means for the reliability of water to the project.”

It’s impossible to tell whether the answers they got helped change anyone’s mind, or their vote. Republican Senator Bob Keenan of Big Fork came to the meeting skeptical of the water compact, and while he left with more answers, he wasn’t ready to say he’d changed his no vote to a yes.

“I was in the legislature in 1997 when we did the electric restructuring referred to as energy deregulation and it turned out very badly," said Keenan. "And I fear that this big a move could rival that type of a decision in its scope and I don’t want it to turn out badly.”

And Keenan doesn’t like the fact that the compact will be an up-or-down vote, with no chance to add amendments that might clear up any uncertainties.

“Here we are with a yea or nay, take it or leave it vote, which is contrary to the legislative process.”

But Cattle Rancher and Democratic Senator Bradley Hamlett of Cascade came to the meeting a supporter of the compact, and left even more certain that he’ll vote for it.

“If the compact passes then I don’t have to go into court and justify our water rights under these challenges," said Hamlett. "And also all the people in Cascade County wouldn’t have to, and all the people in my new Senate district, that’s Judith Basin, Fergus, Petroleum, Golden, valley, Wheatland, and Meagher Counties won’t have to go into court."

The organizer of the meeting Senator Chas Vincent knows that lawmakers can be persuaded to change their minds about the Water compact, because he changed his own mind about it. He opposed the original compact that the legislature rejected in 2013, then went on to chair the interim committee that studied the issue for nearly two years.

He came away convinced that a negotiated settlement to the tribes’ water rights is better than letting the issue be settled in the courts, one claim at a time.

“We’ll be talking about decades and decades of people having to come back into water court back into basins that have already been adjudicated, and defend prima facie claims from 1855 that they shouldn’t have to," Vincent said.

He says much of the opposition to the agreement is based on misconceptions about water law, history, and the relationship between the state, the tribes, and the federal government. He views his role not as persuading people to vote yes, as much as helping them separate truth from misinformation.

“Will Rogers’ famous quote is, 'it’s not what people know that’s the problem, it’s what people know that ain’t so, that’s the problem.'"

The Water Compact gets its first hearing one week from today, in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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