Flathead Reservation Water Management Board holds first meeting
Photo by Kristi Niemeyer
RONAN — Watching last week’s inaugural meeting of the Flathead Reservation Water Management Board was like watching an egg crack open after five years in a turbulent nest. The hatchling was predictably a little disoriented, but absolutely committed to finding its footing and moving forward.
The board met for two hours last Thursday, Jan. 20, at the Ronan Community Center before an audience of about 60, plus an estimated 100 Zoom viewers. Several staff members from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation were also on hand to help facilitate the meeting.
Leonard TwoTeeth, vice chair of the Tribal Council, opened the session by acknowledging the loss of many community members – both tribal and nontribal – who were involved in the lengthy and often contentious process of passing the CSKT Water Compact. He also offered a prayer that “today we come together as a unified community” and recognize water “as a common medicine to help all of us.”
He introduced the Tribal Council’s two picks for the board – Clayton Matt and Teresa Wall-McDonald – while Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras introduced the governor’s selections, Roger Noble and Kenneth Pitt. The four-member board will select a fifth voting member, hopefully at its next meeting, and a non-voting member was chosen by the Department of the Interior (see separate story for details).
Juras noted that members of the board are performing a valuable public service. “These are people who are committed to the success and the smooth operation of this unified project – the only one of its kind in the state and in the nation that I’m aware of.”
The compact, after years of negotiations dating back to the 1980s, was first passed by the Montana Legislature and signed by then-Governor Steve Bullock in 2015. A final version was approved by the U.S. Congress and Tribal Council last December as the Montana Water Rights Protection Act. The signature on Sept. 17 by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland triggered implementation and a timeline for the act’s provisions.
Her signature enacts the Unitary Administration and Management Ordinance, which is now the law governing all water rights on the reservation – tribal, state and federal. The law also establishes the Water Management Board as the exclusive regulatory body governing water appropriation and changes to existing uses on the reservation.
The board must be up and operational by March 16 – 180 days after implementation date.
Wall-McDonald called Thursday’s meeting “a landmark day for the Tribes and the state,” and expressed confidence “we can work through any challenge that might present itself. These people are here because they care about the Mission Valley and it’s that passion and that caring that will drive us forward to good decisions.”
Noble, who attended the meeting via Zoom, recalled attending the first compact negotiations years ago. “I walked away thinking this is never going to happen, but it has come to fruition and that’s a huge milestone,” he said. “I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and go to work.”
In addition to appointing a fifth member, the board’s other pressing responsibilities include hiring a water engineer, and finding and staffing an office with up to five employees. At that point the work begins in earnest sorting through a significant backlog of registrations and water applications and regulating new uses.
The law outlines two separate processes for tribal and non-tribal members. The Tribes, its members and those with allotments have up to five years to register existing water uses that weren’t included in the compact. A water rights registration office opened Jan. 10 in the Tribal Complex in Pablo to help tribal members navigate the process; call 406-675-2700 ext. 1161 for more information.
Non-tribal members have 180 days, or until March 16, to register “unrecorded existing uses” with the new water board. Those include domestic wells, groundwater and stockwater uses that are not covered by a state-issued water right. The DNRC is fielding those registrations for the board until the March 16 deadline arrives.
At the same time, the DNRC stands ready to hand over to the water board close to 1,400 filings and fees for existing uses that have been made with the department over the past 25 years. These “suspended” water rights were filed between Aug. 22, 1996, and Sept. 17, 2021, and have been held but not processed by the state pending the outcome of compact negotiations. All registrations for new water uses or changes to existing uses since Sept. 17 must be filed directly with the board, once forms and a system are in place.
For more information on registration processes, call regional offices in Missoula (406-721-4284) or Kalispell (406-752-2288) or visit the website, dnrc.mt.gov/cskt-mt-compact-registrations.
Mary Price, a tribal attorney who is part of the implementation team, acknowledged the confusion that currently swirls around permitting of water uses, especially for non-tribal members facing the March 16 deadline.
“If we could go back and write the compact again we might have done it a little differently to prevent this sort of gap between formation of the board and this registration process,” she says. “It’s a new process and we’re going to have a few glitches, but we’re doing everything we can to make it as smooth as possible.”
At its next meeting (date to be determined) the board hopes to appoint a fifth member from among the candidates put forward by the Tribes and state, and finalize a job description for the water engineer in hopes that post can be filled as soon as possible.
“I look at this as the key individual to making this happen,” said Noble. “It’s truly a management position.”
The implementation staff was also asked to develop communication strategies for the board and team, as well as the public. “Information needs to be put out to the public about where we are, where we’re headed,” said Wall-McDonald.
The team is currently looking for a centrally located space that can accommodate the water engineer, a hydrologist, hydro-geologist and technicians, and a community room that could potentially be used for board meetings.
Funding for the board and the engineer’s office is provided in equal measures by the Tribes and the state.
“This is neither a state nor a tribal system,” emphasized Matt, who chaired the inaugural session. “We’re really creating a new independent system.”
“My view is unitary management is going to be strong management,” he added. “The better we work toward making this work, the better off we’ll be.”
During the public comment period, Dave Bick, owner and operator of Ace Excavating and Drilling and a local farmer/rancher, noted that while he respected the qualifications of the new board members, “I’m disappointed there was no consideration for a person like myself who is actually on the user end of regulations that your board will steer.”
Max Weiss of Polson asked the board to deliver “a timeline hard and fast.”
“There’s only so much time and your tasks are formidable … yet we have projects that are languishing for decisions,” he said.
Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker encouraged the board to develop an interim way to process applications for new water uses and changes to existing uses that are on hold until the board is fully fledged. “It’s a hardship for some of our folks who are trying to do land splits of some kind of family transfers.”
Longtime Mission Valley rancher Max Krantz urged the board to live up to the theme of “unity,” and expressed his hope that the compact could help soothe longstanding divisions in the community. “What I want to do is to take this black box and bury it. This is our chance and you said unity – that means everyone is represented equally, so let’s light the candle and get her done.”
For more information on the board and its future meetings, visit dnrc.mt.gov or csktribes.org