House panels kill bills to study, enact Flathead tribal water rights compact

2013-04-03T19:01:00Z 2013-04-09T06:35:05Z House panels kill bills to study, enact Flathead tribal water rights compactBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
April 03, 2013 7:01 pm  • 

HELENA — Republicans on two House committees Wednesday voted to kill separate bills that would have ratified or studied a proposed water rights compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in western Montana.

The compact, supported by the tribes, some local irrigators and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, would quantify the tribes’ water rights and spend millions of dollars to improve the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.

Yet a vocal group of irrigators and landowners from on or near the Flathead Indian Reservation opposed the compact, arguing that it could impair their water rights and usage.

Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, an irrigator and supporter of the compact and sponsor of one of the bills, said Wednesday that he was “extremely disappointed” with the committee actions, which essentially killed any hope of legislative action on the compact this year.

“(The tribes) negotiated in good faith to get something to this Legislature, and this body wouldn’t approve it, or even talk about it,” he said.

Judy Beck, spokesman for the governor, said Bullock remains committed to “fulfilling the state of Montana’s obligation to the irrigators of northwest Montana and to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.”

“The disregard of some legislators for the years of thoughtful work that have gone into this compact is very disappointing,” she said. “The governor will continue to weigh our options moving forward.”

Rob McDonald, a spokesman for the tribes, said Wednesday that if the Legislature won’t approve the compact, the tribes will be exploring their legal options. The Tribal Council meets Thursday night to discuss the issue.

To take effect, the compact must be ratified by the Legislature, the tribes and the U.S. Congress. Montana has negotiated and approved water-rights compacts with all other reservation-based tribes in the state.

Tribal officials have said if the compact isn’t ratified, they may take their water rights claims to court, likely leading to years of litigation.

Also on Wednesday, the Montana Supreme Court vacated an order from state District Judge C.B. McNeill of Polson that had gone in favor of compact opponents, who had sued to block it and argued the agreement took away their property rights.

The high court said it would issue an opinion later, explaining its ruling.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 12-8 Wednesday morning to table House Bill 629, which would have ratified the water compact. The vote fell along party lines, with Republicans voting to kill the measure.

Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel and chairman of the committee, said Republicans had concerns about whether the compact infringed on some landowners’ private property and water rights.

The House Appropriations Committee voted 11-10 to table Salomon’s bill, HB636, which called for a two-year legislative study of the effects of the compact and to resubmit it to the 2015 Legislature. It also would spend $12 million toward improving the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.

Two of the committee’s Republicans, including chairman Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, voted for the bill, but all of the panel’s other Republicans opposed it.

Still alive is Senate Bill 265, which would extend the state Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission for another two years, giving it a chance to renegotiate the agreement. The bill is headed to the House floor, likely next week.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, said Wednesday that people affected by the compact need more time to examine it. He opposed both of the compact bills and said the state poorly handled the presentation of the compact.

“Having hearings where all they intended was to sell the compact instead of educating the public does not work in Montana,” he said.

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