HELENA - When lawmakers head to town in two weeks for a two-day special session, they will be asked to approve a deal unlike any other state-tribal agreement struck in the past over water uses.
The 1999 Legislature will spend June 15 and 16 considering two bills to ratify an agreement between the state and Crow Tribe over water rights. The Crow water compact, only the fourth struck between the state and an Indian tribe in history, seeks to settle rights to water in some major streams in southeastern Montana.
If the deal were limited to just the negotiation of water uses, it probably would be much like others seen before. Yet, the Crow-state agreement also seeks to put to rest a decades-old dispute over coal severance taxes and an issue known as "Section 2," which limits the amount of tribal land that can be owned by non-Indians on the reservation.
"Although it's not necessarily totally unique compared to others we've worked on, the things that make the Crow (compact) unique is that we have two other major issues there," said Sen. Mack Cole, R-Hysham, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
What's more, Gov. Marc Racicot and others have deemed the compact important enough to consider it at a special convening of lawmakers. There have been only 25 special sessions in Montana's history and never has one been called so lawmakers can ratify a water rights compact.
Racicot, however, believes the issue rises to the level of importance for a special session that will benefit all Montanans if approved by lawmakers. It's not just about water rights, he said, but also about settling years worth of litigation over taxes collected on Crow coal.
Also, the governor said there's a tremendous precedent set when a water rights compact is settled, because it sets the tone for future compacts.
"This is an opportune moment," said Racicot. "We have the chance presented to resolve some very difficult issues pending for 20 years."
Issues such as water rights often appear limited to one particular area of the state, yet those involved say it's an important step toward bettering relations between Indians and non-Indians and ensuring all Montanans' water rights are protected.
"Tribal-state relations is a statewide issue that's important historically and important in the future," said Susan Cottingham, program manager for the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, which helped negotiate the Crow compact.
"This Legislature did focus on tribal-state relations this session and made some strides," she added. "This is just another example."
Yet there are detractors to the compact. Rep. Bill Eggers, D-Crow Agency, also a tribal member, fears the settlement is being pushed too fast and hasn't had a thorough look.
"I feel like I'm standing on the tracks trying to stop the Burlington Northern with a pillow," he said.
In particular, Eggers believes while the interest of the Crow Tribe as a whole may have been represented in the talks, the rights of individual Indian landowners on the reservation have been ignored. Eggers fears Indians' water rights could be harmed and that could amount to dozens of lawsuits in the future.
Eggers, an attorney, said he's up against the odds as a skeptic of the compact, but believes future generations will suffer if the agreement goes through. He also questions why lawmakers, the tribe and the governor are pushing the compact through so quickly.
Sen. Bea McCarthy, D-Anaconda, a member of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, said despite some opposition, the agreement is sound and ripe for consideration.
"If we wait two years, there will be a new government in control at the tribe and some of the compromises we've reached won't be agreeable," said McCarthy. "We'd probably be back to square one."
Cole, the likely sponsor of the compact during the special session, said the agreement favors both sides, noting that state and tribe gain the advantage of having years worth of lawsuits over coal taxes being resolved. Also, both Indians and non-Indians wi
ll understand what their water rights are and can move forward.
Rep. Jay Stovall, R-Billings, a Crow tribal member who also supports the agreement, said the tribe approached the state about the deal because it believed all could gain. He said tribal members are anxious to resolve the coal tax issue and the Section 2 land controversy, as well as hammering out water use issues.
He believes it's a good deal for everyone. Without the compact, Stovall said lawsuits over coal taxes and over water rights could ensue.
"These are really complicated issues that are going to be settled through negotiations, rather than litigation," said Stovall.
Monday - 6/7/99