HELENA – A Republican state senator from Libby on Tuesday introduced the bill to ratify the controversial state water rights compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes – and said he’s giving every state lawmaker a detailed explanation of how it works.
“What I’m looking for is for everyone to take a pause, a deep breath, so we can have an educated discussion about this policy decision,” said Sen. Chas Vincent.
Vincent, who chaired a legislative panel that reviewed the compact the past 18 months, said he’s distributing a huge packet of information on the compact, in digital form, to all 150 Montana lawmakers.
It will include the compact itself, its numerous appendices and “abstracts,” which have information on the amounts and allotments of water, and responses to the many questions raised by critics, water users and regular citizens, he said.
Vincent said he’s also invited lawmakers and the public to attend a presentation on the compact this Saturday at the Capitol, after the House and Senate complete their floor sessions.
The compact, negotiated between the state and the tribes over the past decade, is a proposed settlement of the tribes’ water rights.
The bulk of Vincent’s 140-page Senate Bill 262 is the language of the compact, which must be approved by the Legislature, the tribes and Congress to take effect.
The compact quantifies the tribes’ water rights and also creates a new “water management board” that will decide water rights and regulate water use agreements on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. Two each of the board’s members are appointed by the tribes and the governor, respectively, and those four members choose the fifth member.
The agreement also says the state shall provide $55 million to upgrade the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project on the reservation and pay for other water use and wildlife restoration projects. However, the Bullock administration is proposing that only $8 million be approved this Legislature, with the rest of the money coming later.
Critics of the compact include some irrigators on the Flathead Indian Reservation, who say it gives too much control of water to the tribes and doesn’t protect existing water users. Compact supporters adamantly disagree that the compact doesn’t protect existing uses.
In addition to providing information on the compact, Vincent said his packet also will have information on what happens if the compact is not approved. The tribes will attempt to litigate their rights in the state Water Court, costing the state – and water users in many river basins across Montana – millions of dollars to defend existing water rights, he said.
Vincent also pointed out that mainstream agriculture groups like the Montana Stock Growers Association, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and the Montana Water Resources Association are behind the compact.
He said he has the “utmost confidence” that after lawmakers take a closer look at the details, they will support the compact.