Settling how to manage the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project has cleared the way for a larger water compact between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state of Montana.
The compact covers the tribes’ treaty claims to water ownership on rivers and streams flowing in and through the Flathead Indian Reservation. Gov. Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox announced the agreement on Thursday afternoon.
“I’m pleased that an agreement has been reached that respects tribal rights, while ensuring that irrigators and residents in the region continue to have access to a reliable water supply,” Bullock said. “The compact is the result of constructive negotiations, where all parties sought common ground in the best interests of the state and tribe. I’m confident that the Legislature will recognize the importance and fairness of this agreement.”
CSKT spokesman Robert McDonald said the agreement had some final wording to be smoothed out, after which the Tribal Council would give its vote next week.
“The fact we’re seeing grassroots support certainly is a signal this could be approved in the next Legislature,” McDonald said Thursday. “At the meeting Wednesday, a longtime irrigator in Lake County talked about his history of moving here, buying a farm, spending a career and how this will be good for everyone. He was not a person who spoke out before. It was good to hear voices like that.”
A negotiating team including state, tribal and federal representatives put the final details of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project agreement together in Polson on Wednesday.
That agreement only covers how CSKT and private irrigators on the reservation will share water and improve the irrigation system. It also includes a $30 million fund to pay for water pumping in dry years.
A previous agreement on the irrigation project fell apart just before the Flathead water compact was to go before the 2013 Legislature for approval. Bullock ordered new negotiations for only that part of the compact, which took place over the past two years.
The larger compact settles CSKT claims to water flowing in the Flathead and Clark Fork river basins.
“By treaty, they have rights to water both on-reservation and off-reservation fishery flows,” said Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director John Tubbs. “In almost every case, the tribes are living with existing flows that other agencies have determined.”
Compact critic Rep. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, said he believed those off-reservation water rights would still violate state and federal law.
“The compact overturns statutes put in place over 100 years ago,” Jackson said Thursday. “Under this, the Salish and Kootenai Tribes would have authority over water in 11 counties of western Montana. They need to correct the things that conflict with state and federal law, and they haven’t done any of that yet.”
However, the organization Farmers and Ranchers for Montana praised the agreement.
“After 18 months of legislative oversight, including analyses by technical and legal experts, the compact has been improved and the Legislature will be in a much better position to make an informed decision. Among the significant changes are ensuring that irrigators within the project will have a water delivery right that would establish a property interest that could be conveyed with the land.”
Wednesday’s agreement should be drawn up and inserted in the larger compact language by next week, Tubbs said. A public draft of the whole package could be available toward the end of the week. A schedule of public meetings to review the compact and receive comments will be published shortly after that.
Bullock must then submit a final version of the compact to the 2015 Legislature for approval. Congress must also accept the compact, along with a settlement between CSKT and the U.S. government on federal water rights issues.
Once that comes together, the CSKT tribal government must ratify the results and then submit the agreement to the state Water Court for adoption.
“If this comes through, Montana will be the first state in the nation to negotiate all its federal reserved water rights with tribes. This is the last remaining piece for the state of Montana. And we’d be the only state to have done so.”