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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Lawmakers Ask Zinke For Help Passing Water Compacts

A stream gauge on Willow Creek
A stream gauge on Willow Creek

A state legislative committee is asking Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to work with Montana’s Congressional delegation to finalize a handful of water rights agreements.

Montana’s Water Policy Interim Committee says federal help in two key areas will lead Montana to having one of the most legally complete set of water rights agreements in the West.

Jason Mohr, the committee’s research analyst, outlined the committee’s requests at a hearing Tuesday.

"The letter asks both Congress and Interior for help with reserved water rights compacts, for Congress to pass the outstanding ones: Fort Belknap and the CSKT," Mohr said. 

These reserved rights compacts quantify and define tribal water rights, which can prevent costly litigation. They can also make federal funds available for irrigation and water quality projects through appropriations.

While all eight tribal governments in Montana have already negotiated water rights agreements with the state, two still need federal ratification, those on the Fort Belknap and Flathead Reservations.

Tribal water settlements can take decades to negotiate, but proponents say they avoid costly litigation of individual claims. Opponents argue the negotiations favor tribal claims to water sources outside reservation boundaries.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester has introduced the Flathead Tribes’ settlement once and the Fort Belknap Tribes’ negotiations twice. He says the Flathead’s compact will strengthen the economy in northwest Montana and said he’s taking the lead from the tribal government there and at Fort Belknap about how to move the settlements forward.

"The CSKT Water Compact will strengthen the economy in northwest Montana and provide reliable water to all users,” Tester wrote in an email. “I take my lead from Montanans, who say this compact will deliver certainty, prevent lawsuits, and protect our most valuable resource."

Tester’s Republican challenger in November, current State Auditor Matt Rosendale, has opposed the Flathead settlement, saying it lacks consensus support. And he wants to see a review of the Fort Belknap agreement before Congressional action is considered.

“Before any Congressional action is even considered [on the Fort Belknap settlement], Matt wants to see a review from the respective federal agencies," a Rosendale campaign spokesperson said. As for the Flathead Reservation’s negotiation, “We've had other water compacts come before the Legislature and pass with near unanimous support from both legislators and the communities but that was not the case with this one. Matt believes we need to build consensus and find support from all stakeholders.”

Republican Senator Steve Daines and Congressman Greg Gianforte both said the two tribal settlements require review by federal agencies before moving forward.

“Both of these settlements will have a potentially large impact on Montana. Further review and analysis by Office of Management and Budget, and Department of Interior is needed before an agreement could be considered by Congress,” a spokesperson for Daines wrote in an email.

"These water rights settlements require review from appropriate federal agencies before Congress can act on them," a spokesperson for Congressman Greg Gianforte wrote in an email.

Gianforte’s Democratic challenger in November, Kathleen Williams, worked on the Flathead Tribes’ settlement while she was in the state legislature. She says if elected, she’d work to get both negotiations passed.

She adds that the clock is ticking on the Flathead Tribes’ compact, which calls for sizable irrigation improvement projects.

“There usually are a significant amount of funds that go along with these, so we need to make sure that they are fully funded. Blackfeet was a downpayment, so we just need to make sure we're fulfilling our responsibility to our tribes,” Williams said.

Tribal water campacts can be renegotiated if Congress does not ratify them within five years of the state’s approval. The state approved Fort Belknap’s compact in 2001. Time is running out for the Flathead Tribes’ compact, which the state ratified in 2015.

Montana’s Water Policy Interim Committee also urged the Interior Department to aid tribe-to-tribe agreements on the Milk River, and finalize its own historic claims that have not yet been filed.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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