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Tribes have done ‘everything possible’ to avoid litigation

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After decades of contention, our community has a bright spot on our horizon, a completed water rights compact that can pass through the state legislature, then Congress and Tribal Council. A necessary component of the compact, an irrigation agreement, is still pending.

By agreeing on a solution, we all avoid the expensive and time-consuming task of taking water rights claims to court. There are other judicial avenues as well. However, if negotiations fail, the next step by state law is water court. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will file claims for the water on and off the reservation based on the 1855 Hellgate Treaty, and CSKT will file objections to claims that conflict with tribal claims. There will be challenges to our claims. Each claim in the Montana water court will be subject to a hearing process that will likely include experts who will make cultural, historical, technical legal and political arguments. Everyone with a water right claim will bear the cost of defending his or her claim in this long and detailed process. For the thousands of water rights claims on the reservation, it’s estimated that this process could take more than 30 years.

Yet, a small vocal and organized group, including some irrigators, have attempted to throw slants, insults and incorrect claims at the process shared by the tribes, state, feds and irrigators. The group does not want a compact to succeed. They are actively lobbying the legislature and the community to convince everyone that the compact will do harm.

That’s simply not the case. The compact is the most elegant solution to a difficult situation. It’s been hammered out with the intent of solving tribal water rights and the water rights of neighbors who reside on the reservation. The tribes have conceded a great deal to accommodate concerns expressed by the state negotiation team and irrigators. The fact is, the tribes have stretched and compromised and given as much as possible to accommodate our non-Indian neighbors. In return, we’ve been accused of quite the opposite. 

There are some facts that bear repeating. In one form or another, change to the irrigation community is coming. Be in through negotiation, or through a 30-year court process, the world of irrigation is evolving. This agreement ensures survival and systemic improvements to keep irrigation viable in the Mission Valley. Currently, as irrigation is practiced now, the system is in need of nearly $100 million of improvements and is on a path to complete failure. As one state official said, the status quo is no more.

On the table is a completed agreement between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Flathead Joint Board of Control and their irrigators. Once the irrigators vote to support the irrigation agreement, then the larger water compact may be introduced to the state legislature. 

That’s not happened yet. It won’t happen until the irrigators get on board and approve the agreement. Two things are unclear. Will the irrigators approve the agreement, and will it be approved in time to be introduced to the legislature?

Earlier this week, more than 1,000 irrigators were offered four public meetings to air out their concerns regarding the irrigation agreement. As we wait for an outcome, our entire community faces a reality that the compact process could fail because a group, including some irrigators, dragged our entire community into court by blocking the best solution ever crafted and offered to the community.

Some irrigators have spoken out about how the adjusted irrigation agreement meets all their needs. They see the bigger picture of how the irrigation systems must improve and evolve to save the entire system. They have digested the irrefutable science that is the basis of the agreement. They see the millions of dollars that will follow to improve the irrigation system and repair a system that is in disrepair and nears complete failure. They also see the innumerable millions of dollars that will be spent in litigation, should this compact not succeed.

The tribes have given a tremendous amount for the greater good of the community. Now we’ll all soon learn what path the irrigators and their vote will take the community on. Will they do what’s right for everyone?

If we all end up in court, please give credit to those who put us there, who brought 11th-hour objections to the negotiations, refused to consider all that was to be provided to them, and stonewalled three governments from deploying the best solution. The tribes gave everything possible to stay out of court.

(Editor’s note: The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council is Joe Durglo, chairman; Carole Lankford, vice-chair; Reuben Mathias, secretary; Ron Trahan, treasurer; Steve Lozar; Terry Pitts; Jim Malatare; Leonard Gray; James “Bing” Matt; and Lloyd Irvine.)

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