A total of $3 million from the state’s general fund will be spent on implementation of the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes water compact over the next two years, according to Gov. Steve Bullock’s top budget official.
State budget director Dan Villa said the money, listed as “contingency base funding” in the main budget bill, has not been earmarked for specific purposes yet, but that will be one of the first jobs of the Compact Implementation Technical Team.
“We haven’t figured out what that will be used for yet, but we’ll be working with our partners in the Flathead and various state departments to figure out how to allocate that $1.5 million,” Villa said. “Obviously we’re going to want to spend the money in a way that fulfills the state’s obligation toward the $55 million cost” of the compact.
The water rights compact for the tribes was one of the most contentious pieces of legislation to pass during the 2015 regular session that wrapped up in April, with the price tag just one of many components fueling opposition. It was the last of seven tribal water compacts approved by the state — and the most expensive.
Bullock initially asked for $8 million to begin implementation of the complex water use agreement, which still awaits final approval from the tribes and U.S. Congress. However, that money was stripped out of House Bill 2 early in the session, with the final $3 million appropriation appearing during last-minute budget negotiations as the regular session neared its close.
Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, sponsored the legislation to implement the compact and was the primary force shepherding it through frequently hostile committee deliberations and floor votes.
“It’s my understanding the $3 million starts in July, once they get the compact implementation technical team together,” said Vincent. “They’ll start looking at what information they have, what areas of the [Flathead Indian Irrigation] Project would be considered low-hanging fruit, things that could be done to improve efficiencies the fastest [and] information that we don’t have yet to determine if we make a physical change, like lining a canal for example, which stockwater wells could potentially be impacted.”
The compact requires the implementation team to be formed within six months of ratification by the state. The five-member group is tasked with designing and implementing a water measurement program, project upgrades, on-farm efficiencies, stock water mitigation and evaluating river diversion allowances to irrigators.
Perhaps most importantly, the team will be responsible for allocating water between in-stream flows and irrigation uses, which goes to the heart of the agreement.
Each of the five appointees is required to have an academic background and experience in water resources-related fields such as engineering, hydrogeology, environmental science and biology.
Four of those members are appointed by the tribes, the state, the federal government and the irrigation project’s operator. The fifth member will be “selected by all irrigators served by the [irrigation project] pursuant to a procedure of their choosing.”
The Flathead, Jocko and Mission irrigation districts are all served by the project, and each have their own governing boards of control.
The compact requires the irrigators’ selection to have at least 10 years of irrigating experience and to own at least 40 acres served by the project, but doesn’t specify a pathway for the districts to find common ground on selecting a team member.
Andy Huff, the governor’s chief legal counsel, said he could only speak for the state’s role, but that no party to the compact had a lead over the process.
“That’s something the irrigators are going to have to figure out,” Huff said. “It’s still early yet and there’s not a process in place.”
In addition, the Flathead Joint Board of Control is currently litigating the constitutionality of the compact. The board says that language in the compact bill obligated the Legislature to require a two-thirds vote, a threshold achieved in neither the state House or Senate.
Jerry Laskody is vice-chairman of the board and said Thursday that he is unaware of any deliberations to select an irrigation representative.
“I think it’s pretty premature to say that any of this stuff is going to happen,” Laskody said, adding, “In my testimony in the House, I pointed out there was nothing definitive in the methodology of how the CITT was going to be selected, there was nothing definitive on what they were going to do or how they were going to do it.”
If the irrigators are unable to select a representative to the team under the terms of the compact, implementation will proceed under the direction of the other four members. Laskody didn’t say whether his board would likely participate if asked, but he doesn’t have high expectations for the process.
“It’s going to become whatever that group of people want it to become, because there’s no sideboards on it or anything,” he said. “I think they’re going to play in their own little sandbox and decide what they want to do.”
Vincent, however, said he hopes the initial steps will begin allaying the concerns of irrigators and others who have opposed the compact, with work potentially starting within the next couple months.
“I think folks will see that when we said, ‘You’re going to get your historic use,’ we meant it,” said Vincent. “The sooner we get those things going on, and they see we’re doing what we said we were going to do, the sooner those relationships can be mended.”
Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.