Its reasoning is sound, it has strong public support and it's long overdue.
It's time to pass the Flathead water compact.
The state of Montana has been in negotiations with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes over water claims on the Flathead Indian Reservation for more than 10 years. While the state and tribes reached a mutual agreement several years ago, the 2013 Legislature failed to approve it. The 2015 Legislature should not make that same mistake.
Fortunately, state and tribal leaders have spent the past two years hard at work hammering out every last bone of contention, and last week, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican Attorney General Tim Fox jointly announced that they have an agreement that should satisfy all but the most committed critics.
The agreement aims to ensure that water remains accessible and reliable for all reservation residents, including irrigators, while quantifying and settling tribal claims to the waters that flow through the reservation.
It has already won over some former opponents, and received a warm reception from a new organization called Farmers and Ranchers for Montana, a group that contends the Flathead water compact is economically essentially for Montana.
This group points out that the alternative to passing a water compact is doing nothing, which would force the tribes to file for thousands of individual water claims in the state Water Court. Such an onslaught of legal suits would tie up the court — and the water rights — for years, and the ultimate outcome is uncertain.
The compact is an attempt to avoid that uncertainty. It quantifies the tribes' water rights and provides the necessary funds to make improvements to the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.
The Flathead Indian Irrigation Project was the primary point of objection for most compact opponents in the 2013 Legislature. Consequently, Bullock directed negotiations to begin anew concerning that project.
In August, a legislative working group — the CSKT Compact Technical Working Group — completed its review and approved a 100-page report on the compact. In a nutshell, that report lays out the technical foundation of the compact and concludes that the scientific modeling it uses is suitable.
Then last week, a negotiating team including state, tribal and federal representatives sewed up the remaining pieces of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, which specifically deals with the irrigation system and provides $30 million to ensure the water continues to flow.
The entire process has been intensely scrutinized every step of the way by experts and interested members of the public, and has picked up bipartisan support along the way. Once the compact language is set, a public draft will be available, perhaps as soon as this week, and public meetings will be scheduled shortly afterward.
But first, this week, the Tribal Council is expected to vote on the agreement. Only after it has undergone public review and comment will it be submitted to the Legislature to ratify and then be forwarded to Congress for the next stamp of approval before it is returned to Tribal Council yet another vote.
The compact has taken years to get this far and still has a long ways to go. Montanans can help it along by taking the time to research and comment on the agreement, and letting our legislators know that we support it.