(Montana Governor) Bullock Signs Tribal Water Rights Ratification Into Law – But More Rivers To Cross

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Opponents of the Flathead tribal water rights compact listen to testimony against the compact at a 10-hour hearing Saturday before the House Judiciary Committee at the Capitol. From left, in the front row, are Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton; Helena attorney Jon Metropoulos, who represents both on- and off-reservation landowners, and Jerry Laskody of St. Ignatius.

Oppo­nents of the Flat­head trib­al water rights com­pact lis­ten to tes­ti­mo­ny against the com­pact at a 10-hour hear­ing Sat­ur­day before the House Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee at the Capi­tol. From left, in the front row, are Rep. Nan­cy Bal­lance, R‑Hamilton; Hele­na attor­ney Jon Metropou­los, who rep­re­sents both on- and off-reser­va­tion landown­ers, and Jer­ry Laskody of St. Ignatius.

Before Gov. Steve Bul­lock on Fri­day signed the bill rat­i­fy­ing the Flat­head trib­al water rights com­pact, trib­al Chair­man Ver­non Fin­ley said it has one pri­ma­ry goal – “pro­tect the water” – and that he hopes oppo­nents will rec­og­nize it’s noth­ing more than that.

That’s basi­cal­ly it: Let’s share the resource and be good neigh­bors and let’s work togeth­er for that com­mon goal,” he told a packed room of com­pact sup­port­ers at the Capi­tol. “There is no under­ly­ing trick that we’re try­ing to pull.

My hope is that his­to­ry will final­ly let (com­pact oppo­nents) under­stand that’s the case.”

Moments lat­er, Bul­lock signed Sen­ate Bill 262, which gives state approval to a nego­ti­at­ed water rights com­pact with the Con­fed­er­at­ed Sal­ish and Koote­nai Tribes in west­ern Montana.

The pas­sage of this com­pact demon­strates that when we work togeth­er to find solu­tions, we can tack­le the most com­plex and con­tentious chal­lenges and find ways to ensure that the voic­es of all par­ties are heard,” the gov­er­nor said.

The governor’s sig­na­ture comes four days after a group of irri­ga­tors on the Flat­head Indi­an Reser­va­tion sued in state Dis­trict Court to block sign­ing or imple­men­ta­tion of SB262.

The suit filed by mem­bers of the Flat­head Joint Board of Con­trol says the bill required approval by two-thirds of each house of the Leg­is­la­ture, and should be inval­i­dat­ed because it passed only by sim­ple majorities.

Attor­ney Gen­er­al Tim Fox, who sup­ports the com­pact, asked the court to dis­miss the suit, which his chief solic­i­tor called “friv­o­lous.”

There was scant talk of the law­suit at Friday’s bill-sign­ing cer­e­mo­ny, where as many as 150 com­pact sup­port­ers crammed into the governor’s con­fer­ence room in the east wing of the Capitol.

But Fin­ley, Bul­lock and the bill’s spon­sor, Sen. Chas Vin­cent, R‑Libby, all acknowl­edged the oppo­si­tion, and the dif­fi­cult and lengthy path trav­eled to ham­mer out the com­pact – and the road it has yet to travel.

Fin­ley said it’s only “half­time” in the process, and not­ed the tribes and the U.S. Con­gress also must rat­i­fy the com­pact before it’s enacted.

The com­pact set­tles the Con­fed­er­at­ed Sal­ish and Koote­nai Tribes’ water rights, both on and off the reser­va­tion. The tribes would have rights to water that flows into the Flat­head Indi­an Irri­ga­tion Project on the reser­va­tion, but they’ve said irri­ga­tors will con­tin­ue to get water to sup­port cur­rent uses and that the tribes would share water dur­ing droughts.

The com­pact also includes the promise of a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar upgrade of the irri­ga­tion project’s pump­ing sys­tem and fund­ing for oth­er water-con­ser­va­tion projects.

Oppo­nents have argued the com­pact gives the tribes too much pow­er over water on and off the reser­va­tion, and could threat­en water sup­plies for cur­rent irrigators.

Fin­ley, how­ev­er, said much of the oppo­si­tion is based on “mis­in­for­ma­tion and fear,” and that oppo­nents should heed the words of trib­al elder Patrick Pierre, who said through­out the decade-long nego­ti­a­tions that the main goal is to “pro­tect the water,” for both trib­al and non-trib­al mem­bers on and around the reservation.

In the end, when this is all said and done, his­to­ry will show (this) is one more thing the tribes were able to nego­ti­ate, to come to com­mon ground,” he said. “All those fears will fade into the past, all those fears will fade into history.”

Vin­cent also com­pli­ment­ed the hard work of staff and oth­ers in putting togeth­er the com­pact. Vin­cent, an oppo­nent of the com­pact two years ago, paid homage to those who helped him learn more about it and who agreed to adjust­ments that improved it.

We would not be here today if it were not for Chair­man Fin­ley and the Trib­al Coun­cil, who agreed in the end to make some changes to this com­pact,” he said.