The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are now mulling their options after the 2013 Montana Legislature failed to pass the Flathead Water Rights Compact; but CSKT officials are hopeful the agreement can be passed by the 2015 Legislature.
The Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, made up of nine appointed members, has been working with the CSKT on the Flathead Water Compact for 12 years. The commission crafts agreements with the tribes to settle water disputes between the general public and tribes, who hold senior water rights guaranteed in treaties signed in the 1800s. Flathead is the last compact left for the state to pass with a tribe, and it’s the only one not to have passed through the Montana Legislature.
The House Judiciary Committee tabled the bill after its March hearing. Lawmakers heard long testimony from supporters and opponents of the compact. Some felt more time needed to be taken to evaluate the concerns of those opposed, who say the compact will be taking the water rights of non-tribal irrigators.
“Well, the Legislature hasn’t been working on it for twelve years,” said Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls. “It was dropped on our lap at the end of February and it’s a 1200-page document.”
Fielder said she wanted to understand a document as complex as the compact before voting on it. Fielder supports the House Judiciary Committee tabling the bill and hopes the Legislature will be able to take the next two years to address concerns.
CSKT Communications Director Rob McDonald says negotiations on the compact are finished.
“They’re hard-forged agreements that took a lot of hard work,” McDonald said. “(The negotiations) were aired out in the public very intensely for the last four years.”
Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a bill from Sen. Verdell Jackson which would have attempted to re-open negotiations between the state and CSKT. Water Rights Compact Commission member Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, said he agrees with that veto.
“You can ask the tribes to come back and it’s entirely up to them whether they do or not,” Salomon said. “We can’t force anyone to renegotiate like some people want.” In Bullock’s veto message, he directs the Compact Commission to draft a report addressing the concerns of Flathead Water Compact opponents. CSKT hopes the legislature decides to adopt the compact in 2015, otherwise the tribes have the option of taking their disputes to court. The state estimates as many as 10-thousand claims may be filed if that happens.