POLSON – Lake County District Judge C.B. McNeil promised a packed and standing-room-only crowd in his courtroom Thursday morning he would rule by early next week, if not sooner, on a motion to dismiss a lawsuit that seeks to hold a proposed water-use agreement to specific state statutes.
McNeil ruled on Dec. 14 that the Flathead Joint Board of Control, the primary defendant in the lawsuit, had to go forward adhering to the statutes in question, or explain why it shouldn’t be required to.
The board’s attorney, Jon Metropoulos, argued Thursday that the statutes cited don’t apply to the proposed Flathead Indian Irrigation Project water-use agreement, considered a key part of a separate proposed water rights compact between the state, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and the federal government.
The compact would have to be considered by the Montana Legislature before its 2013 session is scheduled to end on April 27.
Under the timing of the statutes in question, a vote of irrigators reportedly could not be held until May at the earliest.
Brian Shuck, a Wyoming attorney representing the Western Montana Water Users Association, a group mostly made up of some irrigators on the Flathead Indian Reservation, said his clients weren’t trying to nitpick in an effort to hold things up.
“We’re not trying to hide the ball, we’re not trying to be tricky,” Shuck told McNeil. “These are the rules.”
But Metropoulos told the court that the Legislature made those rules for different types of agreements, not this one.
The board of control is planning to poll irrigators – it represents approximately 1,500 of them – about the proposed water-use agreement. A mail-in ballot is likely to go out by the end of February, Metropoulos said, and irrigators would have two to three weeks to return them.
Irrigators would have one vote per acre of land, and it would take a majority of both per-irrigator and per-acre to be approved.
The joint board voted 7-4 last month to urge irrigators to approve the agreement.