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Water rights compact moves to legislature

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The week of Feb. 25 to March 1 was a busy one for the water rights compact on the Flathead Reservation. First, on Feb. 26, the nine-member Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission approved the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes/Montana water compact and sent it on its way to the Montana State Legislature. 

Ratification is contingent on approval of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project water use agreement by the CSKT and the Flathead Joint Board of Control. 

About 100 people attended the MRWRCC meeting in Helena on March 26, according to Rep. Dan Salomon, R-HD12. Salomon also said about 80 to 90 percent of the people who spoke were in favor of the compact. 

According to a press release from MRWRCC attorney Jay Weiner, the compact quantifies the CSKT’s rights on and off the reservation and settles the tribes’ water claims for all time. The compact provides protections for existing water users and ensures that water is available for future development. 

Then on Feb. 27, the Montana Supreme Court issued a stay order, effectively freezing Twentieth Judicial District Court Judge C. B. McNeil’s ruling on a suit filed by the Western Montana Water Users against the Mission, Jocko and Flathead Irrigation Districts and the Flathead Joint Board of Control. McNeil issued a decision on Feb. 15 that the FJBC and the irrigation districts have no ownership interests in any water rights individually owned by irrigation members, effectively lumping water rights in with property rights. The decision also said the FJBC and the irrigation districts can’t enter into an agreement which provides for assignment of irrigators’ water rights to the tribes.

All parties have 15 days to respond to the Montana Supreme Court.

According to Rex Renk, Deputy Clerk of the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court sets the response time on cases; there is no automatic time frame for decisions. 

Also, water rights negotiators received a letter from Duane Mecham, attorney in the Pacific Northwest Region United States Department of the Interior’s office, outlining the consequences were the compact not to pass the legislature. 

Dated Feb. 19, Mecham’s letter said critical issues such as the adequacy of the current interim instream flows and ways to improve operations and conserve water would need to be addressed as early as this year.  

Also, Mecham the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has “ultimate responsibility for FIIP,” would convene the Tribes, the FJBC and the Cooperative Management Entity to work through all the issues spelled out in the compact, such as farm turnout allowances and the elimination of extra-duty water deliveries.     

Since there would no federal or state funding in a non-settlement situation, costs would be met by operation and maintenance assessments, meaning the irrigators would pick up the tab.

The letter politely seems to say, “Get together and figure this thing out.”

Mecham’s letter is available on www.vote4farmers.com.

To access information on the Western Montana Water Users go to westernmtwaterrights.wordpress.com. 

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