Stalled: Pair of water rights bills killed in GOP-controlled committees

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Two bills aimed at ratifying a water rights compact for the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes have been stalled in Republican-controlled legislative committees.

Wednesday, a bill sponsored by Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, was killed in the House Judiciary Committee on an 11-10 vote, and a bill sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Williams, D-Bozeman, was killed on a 12-8 vote.

Later that day, a “blast motion” House fell nine votes shy of the 60 needed to bring William’s bill to a vote before the House.

The water rights compact that has been negotiated over the last 10 years has become controversial, partly because lawmakers say it has not been adequately vetted by the public, but largely because of a February district court decision finding that one of the compact’s main three components — a water use agreement for irrigators on the Flathead Reservation — is unconstitutional.

That ruling, however, was vacated Wednesday by the Montana Supreme Court without explanation. A notice states that an opinion explaining the decision soon will be issued by the court.

Last week, Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel bluntly predicted that the compact does not have the votes to clear the Legislature.

“A lot of folks came down to testify against it,” said Blasdel, a Republican from Somers.

Blasdel said there “are a lot of issues” with the compact that are either not understood, or outright opposed, by lawmakers and the public.

“This compact needs time for people to understand it,” he said.

Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, is one of the most vocal opponents of the compact. But like Blasdel, Jackson contends it mostly needs more scrutiny, and he has advanced a bill that would extend the authority of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission to continue with negotiations and amendments to the compact for another two years. That authority is set to expire this July, but Jackson’s bill has cleared the Senate and a House committee vote.

The compact quantifies tribal water rights on and off the Flathead Reservation and it establishes a system for administering water rights on the reservation. The water use agreement for irrigators is the other major component.

To take effect, the compact must be approved by the Legislature, Congress, tribal leadership, and the Montana Water Court, a process that can take several years.

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or at jmann@dailyinterlake.com.

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