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Time running out for Flathead Reservation water deal

By Matt Gray, Meteorologist/Reporter, mgray@keci.com
Published On: Apr 28 2014 10:02:05 PM MDT
Updated On: Apr 28 2014 10:13:19 PM MDT
CSKT in Pablo
PABLO, Mont. -

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and interests representing irrigators in the Mission and Jocko valleys are hoping to find compromise on a water rights deal after both groups spoke to the press and state legislators Monday.

Here's some background on the water rights compact, which has been in limbo for 14 years. The compact puts CSKT water rights in legal context. Tribal water claims cover waters over most of the western part of the state.

Part of the compact gives tribes limited participation with the state in these areas outside the reservation while protecting current water rights users.

The point of contention that has stalled the approval of the compact is on the reservation. It concerns how the water from the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project is managed.

Below are links to documents from the DNRC:
Background on the compact
Background on the irrigation project agreement

The irrigation project is owned by the federal government and currently managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Previous negotiations for a water-use agreement for the irrigation project involved the feds, CSKT, a board of control between the Flathead, Jocko, and Mission irrigation districts.

The continued disagreement between the board and other parties caused the legislation to kill the compact in 2013. Talks have broken off with the disbanding of the Joint Board of Control.

On Monday, concerned irrigators from all three districts met for a press conference in St. Ignatius to make sure their opinions were heard. There is concern that the compact will leave them without a voice -- underrepresented on a new controlling body for the irrigation project.

There were also concerns that proposed water allowances would be too modest for some. Finally, many expressed that the right to water should go hand-in-hand with the right to the land that they own.

CSKT and state officials maintain that opponents are misinterpreting the compact and other legal matters. They maintain that data shows water allowances in the compact are sufficient and since the irrigation project is federally-owned there is only a right to water use, and not a right to water for irrigators that use that infrastructure.

Representatives on both sides of the issue expressed a willingness to reopen negotiations and finish a deal.

If a compact is not approved by the Montana legislature by July 1, 2015, the law says that the Tribes must take their water claims to court. With off-reservation claims in play, this could put water rights across western Montana in decades of legal turmoil.