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ST. IGNATIUS – Two of the three irrigation districts that make up the Flathead Joint Board of Control have voted to end their participation in it, the latest twist in an ongoing battle over water rights on the Flathead Indian Reservation – and an illustration of the deep divide among irrigators and others.

Representatives of the Jocko Valley and Mission irrigation districts both voted 2-1 to withdraw from their written contractual agreements with the joint board. It takes effect in 90 days, although opponents are questioning the legality of the meetings.

The moves would end more than a quarter of a century where the three districts have combined to work on issues affecting some 1,500 irrigators on the reservation.

They operated separately for more than 60 years prior to the joint board’s creation in the 1980s.

In an op-ed piece submitted to Montana newspapers Monday explaining the withdrawal, Jocko and Mission district chairmen Kerry Doney and Jerry Johnson said a tape recorder left running for 45 minutes after the joint board’s June 10 meeting revealed new board members and new leadership discussing the Jocko and Mission districts and the Cooperative Management Entity that oversees the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project “with disparaging and sarcastic terms.”

“Even worse,” the letter charges, “the CSKT (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes) and Indian people were discussed in very ugly tones, with one of the new leaders declaring that Indians weren’t Americans and others making similar statements. The Jocko Valley Irrigation District and the Mission Irrigation District cannot tolerate this behavior.”

Irrigators are at odds over a proposed Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact between the state, the federal government and CSKT that stalled in the Montana Legislature this year, and a separate proposed water use agreement between the tribes and irrigators.

In May, two candidates opposed to the compact and water use agreement were elected to the board, with one of them ousting a 27-year incumbent who had served as chairman of the joint board for 24 years.

That turned a 7-5 majority on the joint board that favored the compact and agreement, into a 7-5 majority opposed to both.

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Jerry Laskody, part of the new majority, said he has no knowledge of disparaging remarks being made after the June 10 joint board meeting.

“I doubt it was said, and if it was it was taken out of context,” Laskody said Monday. “If people were standing around talking after a meeting, how do they even know it was a commissioner? This is not a racial issue, and these guys are trying to inflame it. It’s just a smokescreen to divert attention from the real issue, which is that this is a bad compact and it’s bad for irrigators.”

Doney and Johnson argue that the lack of a compact and water use agreement will heap dramatic cost increases on the irrigators they represent.

As the two meetings began in separate reservation towns, both the Jocko and Mission district boards were served with writs of prohibition, signed by Lake County District Court Judge C.B. McNeil, enjoining either from voting on any motion concerning the water rights compact.

The writs were sought by the Western Montana Waters Users Association, a group working against the compact and water use agreement. McNeil had issued a similar order in February that enjoined the joint board from taking a similar vote, a ruling that the Montana Supreme Court overturned in April.

Neither meeting agenda Friday had such a vote planned.

The Flathead Irrigation District – the largest of the three – is the third entity that makes up the joint board. It has five elected representatives, four of whom oppose the compact and agreement.

The smaller Jocko Valley and Mission districts each have three elected representatives, and the joint board also appoints a 12th at-large member.

In Arlee, Jocko District members Doney and Roger Christopher voted to withdraw from the joint board. Boone Cole, the new chairman of the joint board and also a representative from the Jocko District, voted against the motion.

Cole “advocated for a delay in the withdrawal vote until after the FJBC attempted to reopen negotiations with the tribes,” according to a news release announcing the decision. He also “cautioned participants about the seriousness of this move and urged everyone to study the pros and cons more carefully.”

The release said opponents see the withdrawal as undermining efforts to obtain an agreement more favorable to irrigators, while proponents were concerned about the costs, community divisiveness and uncertainty associated with trying to reopen talks.

In St. Ignatius, Mission District members Johnson and M. Paul Wadsworth voted to withdraw. Laskody, who defeated longtime Flathead Joint Board chairman Walt Schock in May, opposed the motion.

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On Monday, Doney said his vote to withdraw was as much a financial concern for irrigators as anything.

Without the proposed water use agreement in place, Doney said, low-cost power for operating the Flathead River Pumping Plant will be lost in 2015, and the price of electricity for the plant could jump by $3 to $4 per acre a year for irrigators.

The rub, he added, is that irrigators in the Jocko and Mission districts help pay for the pumping costs, but don’t get any of the water. It goes into the Pablo feeder canal, and to irrigators in the Flathead district.

“That’s an extra expense we won’t have now,” Doney said. “We may have already missed the boat on money to fix the (Flathead Indian Irrigation) Project. That’s still up in the air.”

Combined with potential litigation costs without a water compact and water use agreement in place, Doney says he’s worried about sustaining agriculture in the Jocko Valley, “be it hay, grain or cattle.

“The FJBC spent millions litigating instream flows in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” Doney and Johnson wrote in their op-ed piece. “The FJBC lost. We believe the FJBC will lose again and we do not want to pay for more litigation.”

Doney and Johnson said opponents of the compact and agreement have indicated they believe litigation is not only inevitable, but preferable.

“We believe that with the new leadership and direction of the FJBC, the time has come for us to operate as we did for the first 60 years of our existence,” Doney and Johnson wrote. “We will work cooperatively and respectfully with the CSKT, the U.S. and Montana to ensure that our irrigators have an economical, secure supply of water for their needs and we will work with those parties to ensure that the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project has a viable future, with much needed repair and rehabilitation work paid by state and federal dollars.”

Laskody said the Jocko and Mission meetings were called “with less than” 24 hours notice, which he said is only allowed in an emergency situation.

“This was not an emergency,” Laskody said. “They’re going to leave everything in chaos. They’re creating a situation that will jeopardize our ability to get a good agreement.”

Proponents say the best possible agreement, negotiated “in good faith” over the course of the past decade, is what is in jeopardy, and the chaos will come when the courts try to sort it all out in the absence of the compact and agreement.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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