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Valley a hotbed of interest in water compact

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The water rights compact proposed and negotiated by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the United States and the State of Montana affects every person in Lake County, as well as those in several surrounding counties. 

Since the compact is such a once-in-a-lifetime event, everyone has an opinion. A meeting of the CSKT, the U.S. and the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission in Helena on Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. promised to be a barnburner. 

On the agenda is an action item to approve the CSKT water compact for submittal to the 2013 Montana Legislature. 

However, the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project portion of the compact is not yet complete, and irrigators are expressing their opinion of the irrigation compact in a referendum in late February or early March by mail-in ballot.

The Flathead Joint Board of Control, a 12-member board chaired by Walter Schock, voted 7-4 to recommend irrigators vote for the compact. 

Some Mission Valley residents who irrigate say they are for the compact. Among them,

Ronan farmer Susan Lake said she thought the compact was as fair a negotiation as possible.

“It’s respectful of the farmers,” she said.

While farmers turnout allowance baseline for a normal year varies from 1.07 acre feet to 1.26 acre feet per acre, depending on where the farm or ranch is located on the reservation, the measured water use allowance can be upped to a maximum of 2 acre feet per acre, provided it’s used in an efficient manner.  

“If you need more,” Lake said, “and the area can afford it, you have an opportunity to buy that extra water.”

Others are against the compact. The Western Montana Water Users scored what they feel is a victory when Twentieth District Court Judge C.B. McNeil issued a decision on Feb. 15 that the FJBC 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 districts can’t enter into an agreement which provides for assignment of irrigators’ water rights to the tribes. 

St. Ignatius rancher and WMSU director Steve Killorn said, “Our goal is to keep our personal water rights our personal property.”  

Jon Metropoulos, attorney for the FJBC and the irrigation districts, said he would file a notice of appeal on McNeil’s ruling on Feb. 25. The appeal would go to the Montana Supreme Court, Metropoulos said, and he would ask the Court to expedite the case. 

State Representative Dan Salomon (R-HD 12) wears three hats in the water rights compact arena: irrigator, state representative and member of the MRWRCC. 

He said McNeil’s ruling would not stop the compact from heading through the legislature, since it could be passed contingent on final approval of the FIIP water use agreement. If approved, the compact would begin its journey through the legislature with the House of Representatives in about two weeks. 

Salomon said he thought the FJBC did a nice job, coming up with a product that protects the rights of irrigators and provides an influx of capital to renovate the irrigation projects.  


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