A federal judge has refused to get involved in a fight over water rights between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and nontribal farmers and ranchers on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen on Monday dismissed a lawsuit by the tribes that asked the court to affirm that an 1855 treaty reserves water flowing through the Flathead Indian Reservation for tribal use.
The court fight could be a moot point, Christensen wrote in his decision, if a water compact among the state, federal and tribal governments is ratified by the U.S. Congress.
“The CSKT Compact resolves tribal priority to the water at issue,” Christensen wrote of the agreement, which received the state’s stamp of approval this legislative session. If the compact moves forward, he said the tribes’ lawsuit would be needless because their rights are outlined in that agreement.
The order appeared to be a loss for the tribes, but their attorney said he believed otherwise.
Christensen wrote that the state courts are “duty-bound to follow federal law” regarding tribal water rights.
If the compact ultimately fails, attorney John Carter said that wording could go a long way to defend the claims the tribes are expected to register with the state in mid-June.
“The case was dismissed, but the court did a very good job of protecting the tribes’ claims in the language itself,” Carter said. “The reason the tribes filed this suit was the impression that the [state] courts were not following the federal law.”
The Montana Attorney General’s office had requested that the federal court dismiss the tribes’ call for a proclamation of tribal water rights. Christensen upheld the attorney general’s request, saying the disputed issue is best decided at the state level.
The attorney general’s office declined to comment on Christensen’s decision.
The tribes’ lawsuit, filed in March 2014, sought a declaratory judgment that “all waters” on the reservation were reserved by the tribes.
It sought to prevent the 20th District Court of Montana “from taking any action to determine who owns water rights, or claims to water rights” made available through the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project in two cases before that court.
The lawsuit also sought to enjoin the Montana Water Court from determining who owned water rights in another case.