Regional lawmakers tout alternative water compact

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An eight-person panel took turns Monday night blasting the existing water compact and singing the praises of an alternative proposal.

Their target was the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes water compact, approved in 2015 by the Montana Legislature. Their object of praise was the People’s Compact, which recently emerged as a potential replacement.

The panel included four regional Republican legislators, one Republican state representative from Gallatin County, two men who have served as commissioners for the Flathead Joint Board of Control and the chairwoman of the Polson-based Montana Land and Water Alliance.

Monday night’s meeting, held at Sykes restaurant in Kalispell, drew about 55 people, a tally that included the panel and a few reporters.

State Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, told the crowd the CSKT water compact “was basically shoved down our throats” during the 2015 legislative session and that efforts to change or amend it were thwarted.

He said the campaign to take an alternative compact directly to Congress, bypassing the Montana Legislature and consultation with the tribes, is a legitimate undertaking.

Other regional legislators who spoke in favor of the People’s Compact at Monday’s meeting were State Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, and State Reps. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, and Mark Noland, R-Kalispell.

Concerns expressed included fears that the federal government and the tribes would have too much say about water rights and irrigation on the Flathead Reservation if the current compact is ratified by Congress and the CSKT.

In addition, several speakers cited concerns about thousands of off-reservation water-rights claims filed by the tribes or by the U.S. Department of Justice on their behalf. The People’s Compact would require withdrawal of these claims.

In turn, Robert McDonald, a CSKT spokesman, has said the tribes and the U.S. filed claims on and off the reservation “and immediately asked to stay those claims pending final ratification of the compact.”

He said once the CSKT compact is fully ratified and receives a final decree from the Water Court “the filed claims will be dismissed with prejudice.”

John Tubbs, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, issued a statement in late November in support of the existing CSKT water compact.

“It was created through more than 70 public negotiating sessions over 36 years between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the United States and the state of Montana,” Tubbs observed.

“It was ratified with bipartisan support by the Montana Legislature and the broad support of citizens, municipalities, agricultural interests and other stakeholders,” he said.

Tubbs noted that the People’s Compact has been “created without any participation from the Salish and Kootenai tribes, the United States or the state of Montana.”

Kate Vandemoer, chairwoman of the Montana Land and Water Alliance, was one of the speakers Monday night.

On Tuesday, Vandemoer said the people “most impacted by the CSKT compact availed themselves of every possible public and procedural venue available to them to participate in and try to influence the outcome of the CSKT compact over a period of six and a half years.

“Those citizens were ignored or rebuffed at every turn by the state, Tribal Council/government, and Bureau of Indian Affairs,” she said.

“The Montana Legislature was not allowed to amend or improve the CSKT compact despite having a constitutional responsibility to do so, and, as you recall, the legislative rules were changed to allow the compact to be passed by a simple majority vote, instead of the required super majority vote,” Vandemoer said.

She said the People’s Compact will be a First Amendment petition for redress “that is being sent directly to Congress” as an alternative to the CSKT compact.

Olszewski encouraged Monday night’s crowd to reach out to U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, to try to enlist their support for the People’s Compact.

He also suggested they write U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, who has supported the CSKT water compact.

A spokeswoman for Tester said Tuesday that he is working with the tribes to draft a new bill that could move the CSKT water compact a step forward toward Congressional ratification.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at 758-4407 or dadams@dailyinterlake.com.

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