PABLO – Saying “we’ve all waited long enough,” the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council on Tuesday called on the Montana Legislature to approve a proposed water compact between the tribes, the state and the federal government that has been years in the making.
“The time for solving the water rights stalemate in western Montana is now,” the council said in a statement released by CSKT spokesman Rob McDonald. “We’ve talked through every concern with the state negotiation team, we’ve compromised and sacrificed to see this compact through to completion. We trust this tried and true state process that has delivered 15 previous compacts.”
This compact differs from ones negotiated with the state’s other Indian tribes, because language in the Hellgate Treaty of 1855 gives the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes “a strong legal basis to assert water rights off the reservation,” Jay Weiner, staff attorney for the Montana Water Rights Compact Commission, has said.
A separate but essential water use agreement involving irrigators on the Flathead Indian Reservation also has drawn the ire of some irrigators, who are involved in a lawsuit trying to prevent the agreement.
Other irrigators support both the agreement and compact.
The compact has been submitted to the Legislature, and its approval would be contingent on the water use agreement surviving its legal challenge.
The Tribal Council’s statement said the compact also offers solutions on a number of areas that cannot be addressed in a court adjudication of tribal water rights, including irrigation administration, shared administrative costs, call protection for non-tribal water rights, agreement to seek state and federal financial contributions to repair the failing 104-year-old irrigation system, and the grandfathering of a water right for lands without a due right lost in a 1996 court decision.
“Historians will understand the tribes’ deep appreciation for local control of complex management issues,” the statement said. “Turning over control to outside interests rarely results in satisfying decisions.”
State Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, a farmer on the reservation, is carrying the bill that would approve the compact.
“This compact is not perfect for everyone, but it is far better than any other option available to the community, and that includes turning to the courts,” the CSKT Council continued in its statement. “We support the compact. We trust the system we were asked to follow. We trust the officials who worked shoulder-to-shoulder with tribal teams in completing this massive undertaking.
“We trust that the Legislature will approve of their efforts. We look forward to the peace and finality the compact will bring.”