Nearly 200 people packed a room in Kalispell Tuesday night, most of them leery or critical of a recently proposed water rights compact for the Flathead Indian Reservation.
The gathering at the Outlaw Inn is one of a dozen meetings being held in Western Montana to gather input on the compact settlement that has been negotiated over the last decade among the state, the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes and the federal government.
The nine-member Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission headed the meeting, first providing an overview of the settlement and then taking questions and comments.
The commission is scheduled to vote on Dec. 19 whether to forward the compact to the Legislature for ratification. From there it would go Congress and the Flathead Tribal Council for approval, plus final approval from the Montana Water Court — a process that’s expected to take years.
Commission members repeatedly stressed that the compact quantifies water rights of the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes but also provides protections for existing non-irrigation water uses off the Flathead Reservation.
A separate Water Use Agreement is being negotiated for irrigation water use on the reservation. If an agreement is reached, it would be folded into the compact.
Water uses on the reservation would be governed by a Water Management Board made up of two members appointed by the governor, two by the tribal council and a fifth member chosen by the four others.
Some at the meeting raised questions about economic impacts that would result from the compact.
While the state cannot “sell” water, a Dayton resident pointed out that the compact has provisions allowing the tribes to lease water for new consumptive uses.
“If I have property I can lease, I can make money from it,” he said.
Another man inquired about a monetary settlement the tribes would receive if the compact is approved.
Chris Tweeten, chairman of the compact commission, said the state would pay a settlement of about $55 million, and he added the amount the federal government would provide hasn’t been determined.
His response drew some gasps from the crowd.
Tweeten went on to say the combined settlements would be earmarked for infrastructure improvements to the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project and other natural resource benefits.
“So it’s not about money if you’re talking about individual payments to tribal members,” Tweeten said.
The purpose of the settlement payment is to provide compensation for concessions made by the tribes, such as the agreement not to “make call” on junior upstream water rights.
“We view it as we are relinquishing rights we are entitled to,” said Rhonda Swaney, a commission member and tribal attorney.
A Polson resident said he has gone through three years of trying to access the chain of title to a property, but he was denied records by the tribes. He said “there is a major disclosure problem with the tribes” that people should be concerned about.
And he spoke to the concerns of on-reservation irrigators regarding a “one-size-fits-all” water allotment proposal. The allotment would fall short of existing water use for some irrigators who are concerned that the tribes would be in a position to charge them for the water they need.
“What’s the land value without water?” the Polson resident said, adding that the tribes would be in position to buy land at bargain prices. “Not only do they want the water, but they want the land.”
The on-reservation water allotment is a major issue in the separate negotiations for a Water Use Agreement.
Jay Weiner, a staff attorney for the compact commission, stressed that since a 1996 Montana Supreme Court decision, there has been no legal mechanism for the state or the tribes to issue new water rights on the reservation. That has left the status of many new water uses in “legal limbo,” he said.
Without the compact, he asserted, the climate will be ripe for costly and time-consuming litigation that will have economic impacts.
“We’re not creating uncertainty in Western Montana, we’re preventing uncertainty in western Montana,” Tweeten said in defense of the compact.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.