HELENA — Foes and supporters of the Flathead tribal water rights compact flooded the halls of the Capitol on Wednesday, orally dueling before a House committee on whether the Legislature should approve the controversial agreement.
Scores of irrigators and landowners from the Mission Valley and elsewhere in Western Montana told the House Judiciary Committee to reject the compact, saying they’re worried it could impair their water rights and usage.
“Irrigators will receive less water than they are using today, rest assured,” said Daniel Cole, a farmer from Dixon. “We, too, want an agreement, but when people’s livelihoods are at stake, it must be the correct agreement, and this is not it.”
Supporters of the proposed compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes adamantly disagreed, saying water users are protected — and that the opposition is driven largely by fear and misinformation.
“While this compact may not meet every person’s expectation, it meets every person’s needs,” said Alan Mikkelsen, a farmer and rancher from Ronan and a former Republican congressional candidate. “No one is losing their irrigation water, on or off the reservation. …
“Unfortunately, there is a lot of hysteria out there. … Fear makes for better political theater than reality.”
Mikkelsen and other supporters — including tribal officials and members, irrigators and business people — said approving the compact will improve the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project on the Flathead Indian Reservation, help settle the water rights of the tribes, avoid complex litigation and boost economic development in the area.
The two sides testified for more than two hours on House Bill 629, a 132-page bill that would ratify the compact that quantifies the water rights of the Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
The state negotiated the compact over the past decade, and in order for it to take effect, the Legislature, the tribes and Congress must ratify the agreement.
Tribal officials said Wednesday that if the compact is not approved, they’ll probably file their water rights claims in court, likely leading to years or decades of litigation.
Vocal opposition to the water compact has already scrambled the politics of passing the compact bill, as its original sponsor — Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan — declined to introduce it, saying he didn’t believe the Legislature would approve the compact.
Salomon decided to sponsor an alternative bill, introduced this week, calling for a two-year legislative study of the compact before it would be submitted to the 2015 Legislature for approval.
Yet Salomon testified Wednesday in favor of HB629, to approve the compact, saying it will help agriculture in the Mission Valley, and that it should be approved now.
The compact and HB629 also obligate the state to issue bonds to finance $55 million for a variety of water projects on the reservation, including $30 million of upgrades to the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.
Andrew Huff, chief legal counsel for Gov. Steve Bullock, who supports the compact, told the committee Wednesday that the governor wants to amend the bill to spend $12.3 million in cash the next two years to get the projects started. The remaining money will be spent later, he said.
While many irrigators opposed the measure Wednesday, some spoke in favor, including Kerry Doney of Arlee, who said a “silent majority” supports the compact and that the opposition is a vocal minority.
What Doney called a vocal minority turned out in force on Wednesday, however, overflowing into a neighboring room to watch a telecast of the proceedings and lining the hallways as they waited to testify.
Jerry Laskody, a rancher from St. Ignatius, said he’d have to apply for additional water just to irrigate his fields as he has for years, and that there’s no assurance he’d be able to get it.
Steve Tobel, the chairman of the Western Montana Water Users Association, a group of irrigators opposing the compact, said there are too many unanswered questions about the compact, and that the Legislature should hold off on approving it.
As for the tribes saying they’ll take the issue to court if the compact isn’t approved, Tobel said he doesn’t fear litigation.
“Yes, it’s going to cost money, but I’m not scared to spend any money,” he said. “I’ll do anything I can, if I have to lose my farm over this deal, so my kids and their kids can have a good living.”