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Compact contingency bill heard in committee

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HELENA – Supporters and dissenters testified in Helena March 6 about a bill that would allocate $5 million for the public defender’s office to defend state-based water rights if the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact does not pass during the legislative session. 

The bill is a contingency plan meant to protect state-based water rights, according to Republican sponsor Bob Brown of Thompson Falls. 

Brown said the proposed Confederated Salish and Kootenai Water Compact is unconstitutional, though he admitted that he was not a water compact expert. The compact would settle water rights claims for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. It would grandfather in most existing on-reservation water claims and spells out how much water the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project can receive. If the compact does not pass, the Tribes have stated they will file as many as 10,000 claims in Montana Water Court. 

“Look around at your friends and neighbors,” Brown said. “How many of them can afford to be just dragged into a court case  -- because they have done absolutely nothing -- for the land and water right that they’ve lived on for generations?” 

Catherine Vandemoer, chairman of the Montana Land and Water Alliance, said the bill was a good idea. 

“It gives the Montana legislature the opportunity to fully evaluate the merits or lack thereof of the proposed CSKT compact without the threat of 10,000 claims being filed,” Vandemoer said. 

But opponents of the bill said they don’t have faith in the ability of the public defender’s office to handle complex water right’s litigation and questioned whether the $5 million allocation would be enough to handle the cost and volume of claims. 

“They are sprinkling a little bit of fairy dust on the problem,” said attorney Hertha Lund, who represents irrigators who support the compact. Lund predicted the cost of litigation to be in the billions of dollars if the compact doesn’t pass. 

Krista Lee Evans of the Senior Water Rights Coalition spoke against the bill. 

“It puts an incredible cost burden on the state and it puts state-based water users at a horrible position,” Evans said. 

The House Judiciary Committee had not voted on the bills as of press time. The compact bill passed the Senate in February. It was introduced in the House last week, but a specific hearing date had not been set as of press time. 

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