Negotiators for a deal to settle water rights on the Flathead Indian Reservation moved closer to settling some questions about how the agreement would work at a meeting in Missoula on Monday.
“We’re trying to show people what this deal does, and for the opponents, what it doesn’t do,” said Chris Tweeten, chairman of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission.
That included explanations of whether state, tribal or federal courts would be the place to settle future disputes, and whether a single management board on the reservation was better than multiple state and tribal boards for handling day-to-day operations.
The compact has been through more than a decade of negotiations. It would cover the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' treaty claims to water on the reservation and set up a management system to share that water with farmers, ranchers and non-agricultural users.
This summer, Gov. Steve Bullock allowed some limited negotiations on the compact’s language regarding a water-use agreement for local irrigators on the Flathead Reservation.
The Monday session also dealt with two other issues.
One was finding a way to verify that models of water usage and flow accurately predicted the amounts of water moving through the system. The second was how the water-use agreement would work in a drought year when there’s not enough water to go around.
About 45 people attended the meeting, along with an eight-member delegation from the Flathead Reservation, three state legislators, and representatives from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Several speakers attacked the whole concept of the water compact, saying it violated their property rights on land they owned inside the reservation.
Tribal elder Pat Pierre responded that water should not be a battleground among neighbors.
“I was at the first (negotiating) table we sat at, and I hope I’m at the last one,” the 86-year-old said. “What we’re doing here is for everybody. Otherwise, big industry is going to cut us up here. We need to stand side by side to fight what’s happening to our Earth.”
The proposed compact may come before the 2015 Legislature for ratification or rejection. If the Legislature rejects it, the tribes may assert their water right claims in the state stream adjudication court by June 30, 2015.
The panel will meet again Dec. 10 in Polson to possibly accept the responses to the Water Policy Interim Committee’s questions.
The committee will be disbanded when the Legislature begins its session in January, but its members will be resources for the rest of the Capitol as the final water compact is debated.