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Signs of movement on the Flathead Water Compact

Posted at 10:12 PM, Dec 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-05 20:44:59-05

There are no specifics on any breakthroughs yet, but new comments from federal officials may be an indication of movement on the long-debated Flathead Water Compact .

The new developments come after several years of dormancy in the agreement, which aims to resolve outstanding treaty rights questions in the Flathead Basin.

It's been over four years since Governor Steve Bullock gathered with Montana legislators and leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe to celebrate -- and sign -- the Compact. The event was a milestone, coming after a pitched battle over the proposed agreement in the Legislature.

The Compact was signed with optimism that the State of Montana and CSKT had hammered out an agreement that would resolve the decades-old legal questions raised by treaties of more than a century before, protecting CSKT rights to water and wildlife while preserving access to water for farmers, ranchers and residents.

But that was only one of three steps needed for the Compact to become effective and since the signing, the proposed agreement has been bogged down at the federal level. However, there are new indications over the past month there might be some movement on the DC front.

In mid-November, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt responded to a letter from Senator Steve Daines, where the Bozeman Republican urged Interior to review some of the remaining complaints by Montanans who still aren't happy with the details of the Compact.

In the letter, Bernhardt explains how the feds view the thorny question of "off reservation" water rights, management of water on the reservation using a unique single board for management, and saying Interior is satisfied "concerns have been addressed" through the negotiations.

Then, right before Thanksgiving, US Attorney General William Barr told reporters in Kalispell he also feels negotiations have been productive.

"This is the kind of complicated problem that needs to be resolved," Barr said at the time. "A lot of economic decisions are pending and I think we have to bring clarity to the situation."

In order to protect rights without the Compact, the state notes the tribe has been filing for additional water claims all across Western Montana, with more than 2,000 that would have to be adjudicated if the Compact doesn't pass. That adds pressure to get the federal approval complete.

"I think it's a good outcome to that process. I'd like to see the process continue,” said Barr.

Once Congress approves the Flathead Water Compact, the final step to approval comes from the CSKT Tribal Council.

CSKT Tribal Chair Ron Trahan released a statement praising the settlement saying "this will work and get the job done". Senator Jon Tester, who made the first attempt to get the Compact through Congress in 2016, is also praising the development and its bi-partisan support.