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FJBC referendum goes to the irrigators

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ST. IGNATIUS — Three Flathead Joint Board of Control Commissioners — Boone Cole, Chair, Wayne Blevins and Jerry Laskody — gathered on Oct. 14 to talk to newspaper reporters about Resolution 2013 and what brought about the resolution. 

The FJBC, voting 6 to 5 with the chair abstaining, passed the resolution which will require a mail-election asking Flathead Indian Irrigation Project irrigators to vote on whether FJBC commissioner who wish to withdraw their districts from the FJBC first conduct a referendum of the fee land irrigators they represent.

But the story begins long before that. The Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission came into being in 1979, created by the Montana legislature to negotiate the federal reserved and time immemorial water rights of Montana Indian tribes. Since 1979, agreements have been reached with six of the seven Indian nations in Montana. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the State of Montana and the United States of America have been meeting in negotiating sessions almost monthly since 2010 or 2011. A proposed water rights compact came out of the negotiations to go before the 2013 Montana State legislature, but a major piece of the water rights compact was the FIIP water use agreement. 

In 2012 the first draft of the FIIP water use agreement came out. 

“Shortly after it came out there seemed to be a tremendous backlash from fee (landowners,)” Laskody said. 

A FJBC election held in the spring of 2013 saw all four seats won by people who were opposed to part of the agreement. 

Chair Walt Shock lost his Mission District 3 seat to Laskody; incumbents Cole, Jocko District 3 and Blevins, Flathead District 3, retained their seats; and Paul Hunsucker’s seat in Flathead District 4 went to Shane Irion.

After the new members were seated, they put together a plan, Laskody said. The trustees would spend 90 to 120 days studying the agreement and check with the irrigators to try and find out what concerns irrigators had. Then in 90 to 120 days, the FJBC would winnow out three or four major issues. 

The FJBC spent the summer holding meetings, discussing the issues, with the last series of gathering in August in Hot Springs, Ronan, Arlee and Mission.

The three topics boiled down to:

1. Ownership of the water right

2. Verification of the amounts of water everybody promised irrigators would receive

3.  Equal participation – the issue of unitary management with no irrigator input.

The FJBC trustee vote was 12-0 on verification and ownership of water rights and 9-3 on unitary management.  

“Fee patents to landowners on this reservation included water rights on them,” Laskody said, adding that the U.S. Congress said people who owned fee land on this reservation owned a water right.  

“One of our main concerns is protecting the water rights of irrigators on this reservation,” Cole said. 

The current compact doesn’t say that, according to Blevins, Cole and Laskody. It explicitly states the tribes would own all the water rights. 

The second issue is that verification of the levels, the amount of water the FIIP would receive, was determined by computer modeling.

Arguing that “you can get whatever answers you want with computer models,” Laskody said he made measurements on his own place using his engineering skills. 

“Very clearly, the amount of water I was being allocated was much less than was in the water use proposal,” Laskody said.   

Cole and Laskody were skeptical of statementss by Chris Tweeten, RWRCC chair, and Duane Mecham, Bureau of Reclamation attorney and federal negotiater.

“Tweeten said so many time, ‘(Irrigators) are going to get the same amount of water,’ but no way (the amounts) matched,” Laskody commented. 

 “Duane said we would not lose a drop of water. I’ve been trying for a year to get data to verify this,” Cole said.

The present proposal calls for the formation of a politically appointed Unitary Management Board, Blevins explained, and the irrigators have no say so.

The proposed compact would consist of two board members appointed by CSKT, two board members selected by Governor Steve Bullock and a fifth person selected by the other four plus a non-voting member from the Department of the Interior.

“Why create a special board and a special ordinance that would only apply to this part of the state?” Laskody asked.

Cole said the FJBC’s concern would be the irrigators lack of “say” on who is appointed to the board. 

While the FJBC was trying to ascertain irrigators major issues, another knot in the FJBC’s plans came when the Jocko and Mission Irrigation Districts withdrew from the FJBC on June 14, amidst allegations of improperly noticed meetings and agendas.

The statues that govern joint boards require a 90-day period before a district may withdraw.

In discussions with the Jocko and Mission commissioners and irrigators, the FJBC said the two districts rescinded their decision to withdraw and then, on Sept. 9, voted to withdraw again. 

Cole, Blevins and Laskody said the FJBC passed the referendum for a mail-in election so the board makes sure it is representing the majority of irrigators.

“We did everything we could to sound out what everybody is thinking,” Laskody said, mentioning again the meetings, phone calls and face-to-face talks with irrigators.

Mail-in ballots will be mailed on Oct. 25 and need to be returned to the Lake County Election Office by Nov. 19. 

At FJBC meetings on June 14 and Sept. 9, Cole, Blevins and Laskody said there were people pleading to vote. 

While the referendum will not be legally binding, it will decide once and for all where the irrigators stand.

As far as the water agreement, Cole said, “Our list of concerns is completely reasonable. We hope the tribes and the United States are willing to discuss them further. I’m confident we can come to an agreement that works for as many people as possible.”  


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