With Montana's Legislature now in the second half of the session, it's time for our lawmakers to focus on the most important issues facing our state. Water, they agree, is one of them. Unfortunately, that's where the agreement ends.
At issue is Senate Bill 262, which provides the legislative approval necessary to move the water compact between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state of Montana toward final approval. This critical agreement has been delayed more than once already; this session marks the legislature's last chance to get it right and get it passed.
The compact concerns the tribes' historic water rights on and off the Flathead Indian Reservation. It spells out the method of administrating water rights and funding irrigation projects, among other necessary details, and represents years of effort and good-faith negotiation. Indeed, stakeholders of all kinds have been repeatedly invited to the table to air any concerns and have them resolved. The result is an agreement that contains a remarkable number of benefits to nearly everyone it effects.
Yet a number of people persist in finding fault with it. Some dislike the compact itself, perhaps not realizing that every other reservation in the state already has a duly approved compact. Indeed, the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission has negotiated no less than 17 compacts with Montana tribes and federal agencies. Others complain that it is too complicated for legislators to grasp in such a short time. It's true that the compact is not a simple document, and that the history of tribal water rights and reservation irrigation is complex. However, the compact is not nearly so difficult to understand as some opponents would have you believe.
Sen. Chas Vincent, the Libby Republican who introduced SB 262, has taken on the task of helping his fellow legislators thoroughly understand the compact. He has acted as the point person for information and resources about the compact, starting by distributing a large packet of information to every legislator in the House and Senate.
Armed with this information, the Senate has no apparent trouble approving the compact. It did so on a vote of 31-19 last month. This past week, it was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. In committee, opponents are in a position to put a "do not pass" recommendation on the bill, which would require 60 votes to override and bring the bill to a floor vote. On the other hand, supporters may opt to use a "silver bullet" to bring the bill to a floor vote.
If that happens, the Rules Committee may have to sort out how the rules effect one another. Let's hope we aren't forced to find out.
Compact supporters are right to be concerned that opponents will use House rules to keep the compact in committee, or to require a super-majority of at least 60 votes in favor of the compact instead of a simple majority of 51. If the Legislature once again fails to approve this critical document, Montanans will be caught up in court, arguing costly water rights cases for the foreseeable future.
The economic impact of this will be felt throughout the state, but it is bound to hit hardest on the Flathead Reservation and western Montana. Missoulians, especially, know how complicated and costly legal battles over water can be. The city of Missoula has spent nearly $2 million so far in its mission to condemn Mountain Water Co.; the case is set for trial this month.
The compact bill is not a partisan measure. It was introduced by a Republican senator and has the support of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. In the Senate, 20 Democrats and 11 Republicans joined together to support the legislation.
The water compact cannot be allowed to become a casualty of uninformed fear-mongering, partisan ideology or political maneuvering. Montanans in every House district in the state, but especially those of us in western Montana who stand to be most affected, should contact their representatives right now and tell them so.