HELENA – The chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on Friday urged the Legislature to support a proposed water rights compact with his tribes, asking lawmakers to look past those who view the compact with suspicion.
“There are forces that wish to tie up the western Montana economy with unnecessary court battles that will drag down all of our businesses,” said Joe Durglo. “We are in danger of allowing our differences to define us when we should be using our differences to make us stronger.”
Durglo’s comments were part of the biennial State of the Indian Nations address, which he delivered on behalf of Montana’s Indian tribes to a joint session of the Montana House and Senate at the state Capitol.
Durglo said while the tribes and the state have had their differences, they can strive toward a better future for both if they work together.
“Continued cooperative agreements between the tribes and state will help improve the economic conditions of the reservations, which will in turn benefit Montana’s economy and communities,” he said.
While Durglo mentioned challenges facing other tribes in Montana, he spent several minutes talking about the water rights compact, which may be one of the more contentious issues before the 2013 Legislature.
The Legislature is being asked to ratify the compact and approve spending $55 million to cover the state’s share of the agreement. Much of the money would pay for improving irrigation systems on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana.
Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, who has irrigated acreage on the reservation, will be sponsoring the bill to ratify the compact. It has yet to be introduced.
A group of water users on the reservation filed suit over the compact and last month won a ruling from District Judge C.B. McNeil of Polson, who said the compact negotiations can’t sign away private water rights without just compensation.
The tribes have asked the Montana Supreme Court to take over the case and reverse the ruling.
The compact would quantify the Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ water rights, potentially affecting water use on the reservation and throughout much of western Montana. It must be ratified by the state, the tribes and Congress to take effect.
Durglo called the compact “an enormous economic development plan … that will ensure the economic engine in western Montana continues to run.”
Its approval would bring “certainty after years of fighting,” he said, and contains the “very progressive concept” of unitary management of water on the reservation, making water rights “transparent” and benefiting the environment and the agricultural community.
The tribes’ efforts to negotiate its water rights have been “met with suspicion by those that refuse to trust the tribes, even though this is a state process,” Durglo said.
He urged lawmakers to extend the same respect to the tribes that they wish to show the state, in negotiating the water rights compact.
Durglo also touched on two other issues important to Indian Country: a bill that would establish a pilot program to preserve Native American languages and a measure that would exempt from taxation some park and recreation land owned by Indian tribes.
Both measures have passed the Senate and are before the House.