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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Alternative Tribal Water Compact Draws Curiosity, Condemnation

Kate Vandemoer presents on the “People’s Compact,” a proposed alternative to the CSKT Water Compact in Kalispell on Dec. 10, 2018.
Nicky Ouellet
Kate Vandemoer presents on the “People’s Compact,” a proposed alternative to the CSKT Water Compact in Kalispell on Dec. 10, 2018.";s:3:

Supporters of an alternative proposal to settle water rights claims on and around the Flathead Reservation have released a framework for what they would like to see in federal legislation. Meanwhile, their proposal is drawing condemnation and curiosity across the state.

People’s Compact supporters say it’s their last chance to address what some residents in Western Montana see as flaws in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Water Compact passed by the state Legislature in 2015. The CSKT Water Compact still needs federal and tribal approval to finalize negotiations and fund settlements.

Speaking at an information meeting in Kalispell, Monday night, Albert Olszewski, a Republican state senator from Kalispell, said he and several Republican legislators from the Flathead Valley plan to carry the People’s Compact as part of a petition for redress of grievances to members of Montana’s delegation in Washington, D.C.

“We do have Sen. Daines as one, Rep. Gianforte, that are open to the idea of coming up to a solution that unifies the state rather than divides us, and I hope Sen. Jon Tester would be the same,” Olszewski said.

Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte said in statements they’re open to hearing from opponents of the legislature’s version. Neither were available for interviews.

“The current CSKT compact is the most controversial, expensive and divisive of Montana’s six Indian water rights settlement agreements,” Sen. Daines wrote in a statement. “Montanans are very divided. I welcome the effort of the opponents of the current proposed settlement for bringing new ideas to the table for a path forward. I will continue working and listening to all stakeholders to help reach a fair solution that can bring Montanans together.”

Rep. Greg Gianforte wrote in a statement: “Federal agencies are reviewing the proposed CSKT water compact agreed to by the state and tribe. Upon concluding their review, they could require changes to the proposed water compact before any action is taken. As the review moves forward, I'll continue working with the tribes and surrounding communities on this issue, and I welcome and appreciate ideas that come from a collaborative approach."

Democrat Sen. Jon Tester though, stood by a bill he introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2016 based on state law: "This secret proposal is not a real solution. It is a distraction designed to divide and derail decades of good-faith negotiations between neighbors. I am working to get the CSKT Water Compact signed into law because it provides certainty for all water uses, boosts economic development, and saves taxpayers millions of dollars. Unlike this backroom alternative, the CSKT Water Compact has been debated openly in the public and it is supported by the tribe, farmers and ranchers, sportsmen, and a bipartisan majority in the Montana Legislature.”

Tester’s bill will need to be re-introduced when the next Congressional session begins in January.

A spokesperson for the Tribes says they haven’t been approached for input about the People’s Compact. Rob McDonald says the Tribes continue to support the CSKT Water Compact as passed by the state Legislature in 2015. “We stand by it as strong as we did when it first marched its way through the state legislature and became state law,” he said.

The Director of the State Department of Natural Resources and Conservation released a lengthy statement condemning the People’s Compact after letters to the editor: “The State of Montana has a people’s compact. It was created through more than 70 public negotiating sessions over 36 years between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), the United States, and the State of Montana. It received extensive legislative input and public comment at meetings, through letters and email. It was ratified with bipartisan support by the Montana Legislature and the broad support of citizens, municipalities, agricultural interests and other stakeholders. It’s now in Washington awaiting Congressional action, with representatives of the Salish and Kootenai tribes in active negotiations with the U.S. Department of Interior,” DNRC Director John Tubbs wrote.

“A compact settlement is the result of negotiations between parties that come together in good faith to represent their interests,” Tubbs went on. “The recently-publicized "peoples compact" is neither a work of the people nor a legitimate compact. It was created without any participation from the Salish and Kootenai tribes, the United States, or the State of Montana. It is a complete misrepresentation of the compact process.”

The DNRC recently developed an interactive GIS-based map which compares CSKT water rights agreed to in the Compact with the Tribes’ total rights as claimed. Access the map is here.

On Tuesday, representatives of Montana Water Resources Association, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and the Montana Stockgrowers Association issued a joint editorial reiterating their support for the CSKT Water Compact passed by state lawmakers in 2015, and asking Montana’s Congressional delegation to reject the People’s Compact proposal.

“The success of Montana’s agriculture industry is dependent upon water and water right certainty. It is easily the single most important resource for people across Montana, which is why ratification of the negotiated Montana CSKT Water Compact is critical.

“Contrary to what compact opponents are saying the negotiated CSKT Compact provides water right certainty, protects Montana’s water users, and ensures a reliable source of water. When the Flathead Reservation was established water rights were reserved through a federal treaty. The federally reserved water rights of the Tribe must, by law, be defined and quantified either through a negotiated agreement or through litigation in the Montana Water Court. The negotiated CSKT Water Compact defines the water rights and settles the legal claims of the CSKT, preventing long term costly litigation and uncertainty,” they wrote.

While People’s Compact supporters released a framework last week outlining their intent, they say model legislation is currently undergoing legal review and is not yet available to the public.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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