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Compact hits rough water

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The passage of the controversial Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, State of Montana and United States water rights compact ran into another snag when Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, announced Friday he will abandon his bill to pass the water compact in the 2013 Montana State Legislature. 

The votes just weren’t there, Salomon said, adding that he is working on a solution and wants the compact to pass. He has another bill in the works, a two-year legislative study of how the compact affects water users throughout Western Montana. The bill would also include $12 million to go to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project  to use for water  measurements and improvements, “to start the process that would start with the compact,” Salomon explained. 

The water quality interim committee would utilize all the state’s resources to get the facts on the water compact and study them, generating a report in September or October 2014 before the next legislature convenes.  

Legislators, especially those in northwestern Montana, have constituents and county commissioners contacting them, saying they don’t understand and they don’t know enough about the compact, Salomon explained.

The compact will have to stand on its own merits, Salomon said, emphasizing that this bill is not a “renegotiation” bill.

Rep. Kathleen Williams, D-HD 65, Bozeman, will take over Salomon’s bill, and it will be heard in the morning session March 27.

Salomon’s announcement came on the heels of a March 19 press release from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council. 

“The time for solving the water rights stalemate in Western Montana is now,” the council wrote. “We’ve talked through every concern with the state negotiation team; we’ve compromised and sacrificed to see this compact through to completion. We trust this tried and true state process that has delivered 15 previous compacts. 

“We expect the legislative leaders will act in the best interest of Western Montana and approve the compact. We’ve all waited long enough.”

Many local irrigators disagree. The Western Montana Water Users, a group of that won a suit in District Court over the right of the irrigation board to negotiate on behalf of irrigators, maintains the compact should not be passed.

In a phone interview, Jerry Laskody, a WMWU director, said, “I think (WMWU supporters) are all overjoyed that the bill is dropped. It’s obvious we oppose the contract as it’s written.”

In fact, the WMWU sponsored a bus to Helena on March 21 for proponents of Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-SD 6, who carried a bill to extend the compact for two years. 

About 90 to 100 people spoke in favor of Jackson’s bill, Laskody said.

“They spent their own money,” Laskody said, “and took their own time to go over there and testify.”   

One of the most critical sticking points about the compact for WMWU is the amount of water allocations irrigators are being assigned, Laskody said. 

Another is the unitary management board. Laskody said Montana already has a constitution that can administer and adjudicate water.

Steve Killorn, another WMWU director, said, “This compact is not “one-size-fits-all.”

That’s one reason he supports Jackson’s bill, “to get a compact we can all live with.” 

Both Killorn and Laskody disagree with passing the compact without the “third leg,” the irrigation agreement.

Some irrigators in the Mission Valley favor passing the water compact, among them Ronan farmer Susan Lake. 

Lake said about 75 percent of the people she spoke with have been in favor of passing the compact. 

“At the end of the day,” Lake said, “It gives us the most water to irrigate with.”

For now, all parties affected by the water compact are also waiting for an expedited decision from the Montana Supreme Court. The CSKT petitioned the Supreme Court to stay a decision issued by Twentieth District Court Judge C. B. McNeil on Feb. 15. 

McNeil’s decision said the Flathead Joint Board of Control and the irrigation districts have “no ownership interest in any water rights which are 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 thatprovides for assignment of irrigators’ water rights to the tribes.

The CSKT petition was filed on Feb. 26 and on Feb. 27, the Montana Supreme Court ordered McNeil, the FJBC, the WMWU and the Montana Attorney General’s office to prepare, file and serve a response to the petition by March 14. 

The WMWU would like the Montana Supreme Court to uphold District Judge C. B. McNeil’s ruling or to send the issue to the Water Court.

The Court’s decision is expected by April 15.  

 

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