Water compact bill heard before Montana Senate

Posted at 5:57 PM, Feb 04, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-04 18:57:30-05

HELENA — A bill to implement the state’s water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes was heard before the Montana Senate Wednesday.

Senator Chas Vincent (R-Libby) introduced the 140-page bill.

The state and tribes negotiated the compact and reached an agreement in December and the state Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission voted last month to send the matter to the Legislature for approval.

Proponents say it will recognize tribal water rights and protect existing uses on and off the Flathead Reservation.

It enjoys support of both Democratic GoGovernorSteve Bullock and Republican Attorney General Tim Fox but also has strong opposition among some landowners, particularly in the Flathead Valley.

“I believe that it’s unconstitutional, it’s a violation of the Montana Constitution, and it’s also built upon false interpretation of the Hellgate Treaty,” Rita Hall of Columbia Falls said in the Capitol Wednesday, referring to the 1855 treaty that established the reservation. “And I’m a freedom fighter. Even though I’m off-reservation, I see this as too much of an issue not to fight.”

She rejected one of the proponents’ main points, that without the compact, water rights for thousands of users could get tied up in lengthy litigation. She said such a threat amounted to coercion.

Hertha Lund, an attorney representing irrigators on the reservation, said irrigators support the compact because it provides certainty. “And they think this compact is the best preservation of their rights. It provides them a delivery right which they didn’t have before,” she said. “This compact is fair for those on the reservation and off the reservation.”

Saturday, Vincent is sponsoring an informational session on the complex deal. It is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. and is scheduled to end at 1:00 p.m.

The deal requires legislative approval (including an $8 million appropriation for irrigation system improvements), plus approval from the tribes, Congress, and the Montana Water Court.