I read the letter to the editor in the Daily Inter Lake on July 11, “Lawsuits Will Sting if Tribal Water Compact Isn’t Approved.”
The author claims that if a CSKT Water Compact is not approved by the Legislature those holding water rights will have to hire lawyers to protect their rights. They go on to encourage people to support a negotiated agreement instead of litigation.
I was a member of the House Judiciary Committee that heard the bill that would have implemented the current CSKT Water Compact. The bill did not make it out of committee and did not receive enough votes from the full House membership to bring it to the House floor for more debate. This compact did not pass because it was a massive overreach by the CSKT tribe and the Reserved Water Right Commission that negotiated with the tribe for the State of Montana.
There are seven Indian reservations in Montana. Six of them have water compacts that have been ratified by the Legislature. Those six compacts have a combined water allotment of 2.55 million acre feet. The CSKT Compact asked for almost 50 million acre feet. Why does the CSKT need that much water? Ninety percent of the agricultural land within the boundary of the Flathead Reservation is non-reservation land that is owned by mostly non-tribal people. The tribe owns 65 percent of the land inside the boundaries, and most of that land is the Mission Mountains. So the main question is why does the CSKT tribe need 50 million acre feet of water?
The CSKT Compact grants off-reservation water rights. None of the other compacts grant off-reservation rights to the tribes. Why does the CSKT need off-reservation water rights?
The CSKT Compact establishes a Unitary Management Ordinance that will regulate all water rights inside the boundary of the reservation. No other tribal compact has such an agreement, and other reservations do not have as large a non-Indian population and private land ownership as does the Flathead Reservation. Why does the tribe want to manage the water rights? Montana has a water court that deals with water rights. There is not a need for a new management of water rights in the Flathead Reservation where much of the irrigated land is not tribal land.
Montana’s Constitution is clear that its water is for everyone, not just a few, and that the state has the authority to regulate water rights. That responsibility should not be given away.
The CSKT Compact gives $55 million from the state to the tribe for the irrigation project. Why does the tribe need that much money? There is annual money from Kerr Dam revenue that is designated for the irrigation project. Isn’t that money enough to maintain the irrigation project?
The CSKT tribe has sued in federal court for ownership of all of the water in, over and running through the reservation. In this lawsuit the tribe has named some land owners. This action has required those land owners to retain lawyers to defend themselves. So, litigation has already started outside legislative action on the CSKT Compact.
If the CSKT Water Compact is ratified in its present form, there are sure to be many suits brought by landowners for takings by the state. When the tribe has control of the water rights, and reduces the amount of water available for farming, the value of the land will go down and the uncertainty of water availability will negatively affect agricultural production.
Fifty legislators have asked the Water Policy Interim Committee to answer numerous questions regarding the CSKT Water Compact, so they can better understand the effect of the compact. The tribe and Reserved Water Right Commission have spent time since the last legislative session defending the present compact instead of working to make the compact reasonable for all Montanans.
I’m sure that if the CSKT brought a water agreement to the next Legislature that showed its needs for water and determined how much would be needed for those purposes, it would be approved like the other six compacts. The tribe has a right to the water they need just like every other citizen. I agree with the author of the letter to the editor that a negotiated agreement would be best. It needs to be reasonable, not over reaching.
Regier is the Republican legislator from House District No. 5 in Kalispell.