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Water rights compact dies in committee

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It was a fast and furious week for the controversial Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, State of Montana and United States  water rights compact. 

Rep. Kathleen Williams, D-HD 65, Bozeman, took over House Bill 629 to implement the negotiated water contract when Rep. Dan Salomon, R-HD 12 abandoned the bill two weeks ago. 

Salomon said the votes just weren’t there, but he wanted the water compact to pass. He sponsored another bill, for a two-year legislative study on how the compact affects water users throughout Western Montana. Both bills were voted down in the House’s Judicial Committee on April 3, according to the Montana legislature site.   

Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-SD 6, carried Senate Bill 265, to extend the compact commission’s life for two more years. Jackson’s bill passed the Senate and will now go to the House. 

CSKT attorneys Rhonda Swaney and Dan Decker updated Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal members on the water rights negotiations at the CSKT quarterly meeting April 5. 

They said supporters of the water compact tried two things to save the compact bill: they tried to undo the vote to have legislators vote against, and then they sponsored something called a “blast vote.”

If the blast could have drawn 60 votes, it would have carried the compact bill to the legislative floor, but it failed by a vote of 51-47, according to Swaney. 

The same day, Swaney said the Montana Supreme Court issued a short opinion, stating that the decisions issued by Judge C.B. McNeil were vacated, or set aside, and a longer opinion would follow.

The tribes and the Flathead Joint Board of Control, a 12-member board that represents 1,500 irrigators in the Mission, Jocko and Flathead irrigation districts, requested the Montana Supreme Court overturn a decision issued by Twentieth District Court Judge C.B. McNeil. 

The decision was in a suit filed by the Western Montana Water Users against the FJBC and the irrigation districts. In his decision on Feb. 15, McNeil found 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. 

Swaney explained options for the compact from the CSKT’s point of view and said 

further legislation is possible, but probably won’t work since the same legislators will vote. 

The same thing is true of a special legislative session. 

The makeup of the House of Representatives and the Senate could change next session, and a new members could approve the water compact.  

The tribes could request that Governor Steve Bullock veto Jackson’s bill and approve Salomon’s bill. This type of veto is called an “amendatory veto,” but there is no guarantee the governor would comply. 

Another option is to proceed with further water rights negotiations, but many feel the tribes would be asked for more concessions

The last-ditch option is to file claims with the water court. 

“It’s what we do if we can’t get a compact approved,” Swaney told the crowd.

Decker said the CSKT also has an option to sit idle, but if that happens the United States government would have to take over, in their trustee capacity.  

The “wild card,” Swaney continued, would be a Montana Supreme Court decision throwing out Judge McNeil’s order. 

In a phone interview, Rep. Salomon said Jackson’s bill to extend the compact commission is still alive. 

“Nothing is ever dead until the last day,” he explained. 



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