HELENA – Farmers, ranchers and business owners are leading a new group supporting the Flathead tribal water rights compact, saying Tuesday its passage is vital for the economy and water users across the state.
“I’m convinced that it’s a fair compact and that it treats the tribes, as well as people on the reservation and off the reservation, fairly,” said Lorents Grosfield, a Big Timber rancher and co-chair of the group, dubbed Farmers and Ranchers for Montana.
Grosfield and others also said Tuesday if the 2015 Montana Legislature doesn’t approve the compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the tribes will file for thousands of water rights next year that will take years to litigate, clogging the state Water Court and creating uncertainty for other water users and property owners.
“This compact is a settlement (of water rights held by the tribes) and it’s a way to avoid litigation and loss of property rights, moving forward in perpetuity,” added Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, another co-chair.
Reichner, who voted against ratifying the compact in 2013, said changes have been made to the agreement in recent months to make it more palatable, and he now supports it.
The compact, negotiated by the tribes and the state the past dozen years, quantifies the tribes’ water rights and also includes millions of dollars to improve the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project on the Flathead Indian Reservation north of Missoula.
The state Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission and the tribes completed a deal two years ago, but the 2013 Montana Legislature rejected it, in the face of vocal opposition by some water users on and near the reservation.
Grosfield said the new group is forming to educate people about what it sees as positive impacts of the compact and counter what he and others called “misinformation” that helped sink it two years ago.
“There wasn’t much in the way (two years ago) of an educational effort, for the press, or legislators or anybody,” he said. “We’re going to be out and visible and just trying to spread accurate information about the compact and the whole process.”
The Compact Commission has been negotiating with the tribes in recent months on additional changes and will meet Wednesday in Polson to discuss what may be a final proposed agreement, said Chris Tweeten, the commission chair.
Tweeten said the state and the tribes have discussed a water-use agreement they hope can provide historical levels of water to agricultural irrigators on the reservation.
Rob McDonald, a spokesman for the tribes, also said Tuesday they’ve been working to educate state lawmakers about the contents and advantages of the compact.
“I’ve had more conversations with people who are known conservatives who have studied up on the compact and are coming out and supporting it publicly,” he said. “We’re finding more and more common ground, and hopefully the compact can be completed.”
The Legislature, Congress and the Tribal Council must approve the agreement before it takes effect.
Walt Sales, a Gallatin Valley farmer and co-chair of the new group, said Tuesday that approving the compact and settling the tribal water rights will create more certainty for property owners and water rights holders across the state.