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HELENA – After days of procedural wrangling and a marathon debate, the Montana House Wednesday finally endorsed the bill ratifying the controversial Flathead tribal water-rights compact.

A dozen Republicans joined all 41 House Democrats to support Senate Bill 262, advancing it on 53-47 vote and setting up a possible final vote on Thursday.

“This bill has really put the pressure on both sides,” said Rep. Bruce Meyers of Box Elder, the only Native American Republican in the Legislature and a supporter of the bill. “But I would beg to differ that there are going to be winners and losers. I think this (compact) is a best attempt to create a win-win situation.”

The opponents argued that the lengthy, complex bill raises too many unanswered questions and gives the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes untested water rights that have unknown impacts on their neighbors and the economy.

“This is a forever document,” said Rep. Randy Brodehl, R-Kalispell. “This body, we can’t renegotiate it, we can’t even take a peek at it to see if we can fix anything that isn’t working. … It’s take it or leave it.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, ratifies a negotiated settlement of the tribes’ water rights. More than a decade in the making, the water compact quantifies and defines the tribes’ water rights on the Flathead Indian Reservation and on several river and stream basins outside the reservation.

Tribal officials, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, Republican Attorney General Tim Fox and most of the state’s major agricultural groups support the compact, saying it protects the water uses of irrigators on the reservation in western Montana and will prevent years of costly litigation for water-rights holders in many areas of the state, who would have to defend their rights if the tribes end up pursuing their water rights in state Water Court.

Before the compact can take effect, it must be ratified by the Legislature, the tribes and Congress.

The negotiated compact also includes a state obligation to provide $55 million to upgrade the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project on the reservation and fund other water-conservation and development measures.

However, SB262 so far includes no money. Bullock administration officials have said they hope to add $8 million to a budget bill still before the Legislature, to fund initial projects that go with the water compact.

During floor debate Wednesday, supporters said the compact will improve the Irrigation Project, which serves thousands of Indian and non-Indian water-users on the reservation, and commits the tribes to sharing water during drought years.

They also said the tribes gave up a lot in the negotiations, and that Native Americans have a history of being good neighbors to non-Indians.

“Why would we not be good neighbors now?” asked Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, a member of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indian tribes. “The Flathead tribes gave up a lot more than they should have in the compact, because they were mindful of the people on the reservation. They were mindful of the irrigators. They were mindful of everyone who’s affected by this.”

Critics of the compact tried a dozen times to amend the bill on the floor Wednesday, but were rejected each time by the same coalition that supported the measure, mostly on 53-47 votes.

One of the amendments from Rep. Matthew Monforton, R-Bozeman, said appeals of water-use decisions by a board created by the bill must be settled in state court, rather than in a court agreed to by the parties in the dispute.

He said the bill sets up a separate system for on-reservation water-users that makes their appeal rights meaningless.

“They’ve chosen to separate Flathead irrigators from their brothers and sisters in the rest of the state, and impose a different set of laws upon them,” Monforton said. “What they’ve created is an agricultural apartheid, one that will certainly result in the theft of their water and ultimately the theft of their land.”

Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, who carried the bill on the floor, opposed all amendments, saying they would essentially kill the compact, which has been negotiated between a state commission and the tribes over the past decade.

Wednesday’s debate and vote came after another rules challenge involving SB262, which had to clear several procedural hurdles before making it to the floor.

The Republican-Democratic majority supporting the bill forced a series of votes that removed the bill from a committee that had voted to kill it.

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