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PABLO - Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes officials and a group of Flathead Reservation irrigators announced Thursday in Washington they are negotiating a settlement to a long-running water dispute.

The settlement would resolve decades of bitter and costly litigation over water resources and irrigation management on the reservation.

"After years of acrimonious activity, the parties are now working together to reach a mutually acceptable solution to settle long-standing historical areas of dispute and controversy," said a joint statement by the tribes and the Flathead Joint Board of Control, the St. Ignatius agency that serves as the operating authority for the three irrigation districts on the reservation.

The statement came through the office of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., where representatives of the tribes and the FJBC met Thursday. They also met with others in Montana's congressional delegation as they attempt to usher their proposal through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and its parent agency, the Department of the Interior. The BIA now manages the irrigation project.

"It's monumental that after all these years, we're working out an agreement," said Jami Hamel, vice chairwoman of the tribal government and a participant in Thursday's meetings. "This is an historic event."

The announcement was a significant breakthrough in resolving one of the most long-standing and rancorous relationships between tribal and non-tribal people on the Flathead Reservation since the reservation was opened to non-tribal settlement in 1910.

"After years of disputes over ownership, I'm glad to see that they were able to work together to jointly develop a solution. Both tribal members and non-tribal residents will benefit from this agreement," Baucus said.

The press release stated that the sides have put together an operating plan with the overall purpose of improving water supply and mitigating impacts on natural resources. The plan proposes transfer of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project to a "Joint Management Entity." The JME, as it is called, would have the authority to manage the project according to a jointly developed and accepted plan, the statement said.

"Currently the CSKT and the FJBC are gathering operating plans and management information from other irrigation projects to use in developing the plan. Once the operation plan is developed, there may be a need for the CSKT and the FJBC to seek financial assistance to remedy deficiencies and ensure betterment," the statement said.

Timelines and further details were not released.

"We are tickled to be sitting at the same table," said Walter Schock of St. Ignatius, FJBC chairman.

Alan Mikkelsen, former FJBC executive director, also participated in the discussion as a consultant to the FJBC, as did Anna Sorrell and Joe Dupuis, administrators within the tribal government. The negotiations apparently have been going on for months.

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The Flathead Indian Irrigation Project originally was financed by Congress in 1908 to help Indian farmers grow crops on the Flathead Reservation. When the reservation was opened to non-Indian settlement, much of the irrigated land was obtained relatively cheaply by white settlers. The tribal government has made it a priority to "regain ownership and control of all lands within our reservation boundaries," according to a mission statement adopted by the Tribal Council in 1996.

The FJBC has long sought greater management authority over the irrigation project from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In litigation, press statements and at public meetings over the years, the board said the BIA's management was inefficient, wasteful and unfair to local irrigation users' interests.

Meanwhile, the tribes claimed that the irrigators wanted to avoid paying their fair share of costs for the project, saying the irrigation board had wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers while pursuing 22 unsuccessful legal actions in the past 30 years.

The tribal government went so far as to sue the FJBC for racketeering in the 1990s, a suit later dismissed in federal court.

More recently, the tribes and the irrigators have been at loggerheads over the tribal assertion of control over water rights administration on the Flathead Reservation.

Negotiations over several years between the state and the tribes have yet to produce even an interim agreement over water rights administration within reservation boundaries. Currently, no new water rights can be granted by any agency, state or tribal, while negotiations continue.

Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or jstromnes@missoulian.com

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