Revised compact open to comments

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A revised draft of the proposed water compact for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will be presented to the public during four meetings beginning Friday in Ronan, Kalispell and Helena.

Members of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission will solicit public comments during two Friday meetings at the Ronan Performing Arts Center. A 4 p.m. meeting will be tailored toward on-reservation irrigators; at 7 p.m. there will be a general public meeting to discuss the revised compact.

On Saturday, there will be a public meeting at 9 a.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kalispell.

On Monday at 7 p.m. in Helena, the full nine-member commission will vote on whether to approve the revised compact. If it’s approved, it would be drafted into bill form and sent to the Montana Legislature.

The proposed water-rights compact would take steps to quantify the tribes’ water rights and obligate the state to spend $55 million to improve the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project. The compact is the result of more than 10 years of negotiations and must be ratified by the state, the tribes and the U.S. Congress.

Six previous tribal compacts elsewhere in Montana have been negotiated and ratified. But the Flathead compact, which is based on a broad interpretation of  language in the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, is the only one that would extend tribal water rights beyond the reservation’s boundaries.

Partly because of that, as well as because of its length and complexity, it has drawn scrutiny and suspicion. The earlier version of the compact, which was rejected by the 2013 Legislature, totaled more than 1,400 pages.

The revisions focus on the allocation of water between the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project and in-stream flows for the tribes. Commission Chairman Arne Wick said Wednesday that the previous agreement negotiated by the Flathead Joint Board of Control expired with that board’s dissolution in 2013.

“The provisions in that agreement have been strengthened for protecting historic farm deliveries [of water] and rolled directly into the compact,” Wick said.

Negotiations to revise compact language were held last year involving the state, the tribes and the federal government. Those negotiations were open to the public, drawing passionate — and at times heated — comments from affected citizens.

Dick Barrett of Missoula, a compact commissioner and Democratic state senator, said in an interview Tuesday that he hoped comments during the newest round of meetings would focus on the specific changes to the compact.

“It would be helpful for me if people would say what water right they have and why they think it’s being taken, and what language in the compact they think affects that taking of their water right,” Barrett said. “There has been a lot of anger, and I think a lot of incivility, and it’s not helpful.”

He said the purpose of the public review is to identify potential problems overlooked by the commission in the current draft. Those concerns can then be taken into account during the commission’s discussion and vote on Monday.

Arguments both for and against the water compact have raged on local opinion pages for several years. Supporters in general argue that the compact is necessary to head off tribal court action to pursue water claims. Opponents, on the other hand, focus on the bigger picture of whether or not the compact is legitimate based on historical, legal and constitutional concerns.  

Sen. Verdell Jackson, who has been a vocal opponent of the water compact, complains in a letter to the editor in today’s Inter Lake for instance that the compact’s proposed process for regulating water would “violate the equal protection clauses of the U.S. and Montana Constitutions as well as state and federal water laws.”

Gov. Steve Bullock has noted previously that this year’s legislative session is the final opportunity for lawmakers to approve the compact. Otherwise, the tribes will have to file claims for their water rights in a state stream adjudication court by June 30.

Barrett said he is more optimistic about the compact’s chances of becoming law during the current legislative session, which began Monday.

“I think these [changes] make it more palatable to at least some of the people who opposed it before,” he said. “The real problem the last time around I think is that the compact got to the Legislature very late... It’s a big, complicated bill and there was a lot of concern among legislators that they didn’t have enough time to deal with it and the public felt that it came right down to the last minute.”

The revised compact is now available online at  www.dnrc.mt.gov/rwrcc/Compacts/CSKT/Default.asp

Reporter Samuel Wilson may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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