HELENA – A contentious water rights agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in western Montana is headed for the Montana Legislature, where its sponsor said Wednesday he’s hopeful it can be ratified.
“What we’re asking people to do is get the real information, to look beyond the rhetoric,” said Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, a farmer on the Flathead Indian Reservation. “The tribes came to the table and looked for ways to make this work. They were good partners in this, because there are a lot of areas where if agreements weren’t there, we’d have to go back and look for other ways to do it.”
Yet Salomon said it may prove more difficult to approve the $55 million in state funding that goes with agreement, most of which pays for improvements to the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.
Salomon will be carrying the bill that ratifies the compact and funds the state’s share of the costs.
On Tuesday night, the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission voted to forward the agreement to the Legislature for ratification.
The agreement, more than 10 years in the making, quantifies the tribes’ water rights both on and off the Flathead Indian Reservation, potentially affecting water users throughout much of western Montana.
The agreement must be ratified by the state, the federal government and the tribes, after which it would be submitted to the state Water Court for inclusion in the court’s final decrees.
Robert McDonald, communications director for the tribes, said Wednesday the tribes chose to give up some of their water rights to reach an agreement that’s best for the entire reservation community, both Indian and non-Indian.
“Getting to this point is remarkable; we’ve come a long ways,” he said. “We hope the Legislature considers what is the best thing for our community.
“These negotiations were built on that sense of community. … I hope the entire community will see through the misinformation that threatens to derail this process.”
Some irrigators on the reservation are opposing the compact, and just last week, a state district judge in Polson ruled that a board representing irrigators cannot agree to the compact without ensuring that water users get compensated for their water rights.
The tribes have asked the Montana Supreme Court to take supervisory control of the case and reverse the judge’s order.
Salomon said his bill to ratify the agreement will have language that says ratification of the compact, if approved by the Legislature, is contingent on the outcome of the lawsuit.
Sen. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon, the only member of the compact commission to vote against sending the compact to the Legislature, said Wednesday there are too many unanswered questions about the compact. She said she’s troubled by the lack of consensus by affected parties on the reservation, and by how the compact puts all water management on the reservation under a five-person board.
Salomon said the agreement should provide certainty for water rights holders across western Montana, and that the compact seeks to protect existing water uses and protect future uses.
Gov. Steve Bullock has proposed using state bonds to finance the state’s $55 million cost of the compact.
Salomon said it will be difficult getting the required two-thirds vote of each House of the Legislature to approve the sale of state bonds. If that can’t be achieved, other financing options may be available, he said, because all of the money may not be needed upfront.
Bullock’s office said he hopes and expects the Legislature “to approve (the compact) as it has every other compact that has come before it in the past.”