HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court has stepped into the complex legal battle over a proposed tribal water-rights compact on the Flathead Indian Reservation, suspending the case while it decides whether to take control of it.
Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris on Wednesday said all proceedings in the case are on hold until the high court rules on a request by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that the court take “supervisory control” of the case.
The order came one day after the tribes asked the court to intervene and overrule a Feb. 15 lower-court decision they said could “frustrate” negotiations on the proposed water compact with the tribes.
Morris gave the tribes, the state attorney general and the two parties in the lawsuit until March 14 to comment on the tribes’ request, after which the court will rule on whether to take over the case.
Developments in the legal tussle come just as the proposed water rights compact with the tribes is set to go before the Montana Legislature for possible ratification.
The Legislature is being asked to approve the compact and the state’s $55 million share of the compact expenses, much of which would go to improve the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project on the Indian reservation in northwestern Montana.
The water rights compact, which has been negotiated for many years, quantifies the tribes’ water rights both on and off the Flathead Indian Reservation, potentially affecting water users throughout much of Western Montana.
The agreement is subject to ratification by the state, the federal government and the tribes, after which it would be submitted to the state Water Court for inclusion in the court’s final decrees.
The legal dispute initially involved two separate groups representing irrigators and landowners on the reservation.
The Western Montana Water Users Association, which says it represents about 150 irrigators of private land on the reservation, sued the Joint Board of Control and three irrigator associations, saying the latter groups are violating state law as they negotiated with the tribes over the water-rights compact.
State District Judge C.B. McNeil of Polson ruled two weeks ago in favor of the Water Users Association, and the Joint Board of Control this week appealed that decision to the Montana Supreme Court.
The tribes, which are not a party in the lawsuit, then asked the Montana Supreme Court to take control of the entire case and overrule McNeil.