Democratic legislator introduces bill to ratify Flathead water rights

2013-03-24T00:45:00Z Democratic legislator introduces bill to ratify Flathead water rightsBy Mike Dennison of The Standard State Bureau Montana Standard

Some western Montana landowners opposed, say it could adversely affect their water rights, usage

HELENA – A Democratic lawmaker from Bozeman Saturday added to the political whirlpool surrounding the Flathead Indian water-rights compact, introducing a bill to ratify the agreement.

Rep. Kathleen Williams said the proposed compact, which affects water rights throughout western Montana, has been years in the making and needs a full hearing at the Legislature.

“I just feel like we’re moving forward on a commitment that we made,” she said. “We owe it to the people who have been working on this (compact) for 30 years.”

Williams’ introduction Saturday of House Bill 629 comes one day after a Republican lawmaker who had planned to sponsor the bill said it won’t pass the Republican-controlled Legislature, and that he’s working on an alternative.

Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, said Friday he plans to introduce a different bill that calls for a two-year legislative study of the proposed water-rights compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Some irrigators and landowners on the Flathead Indian Reservation and in other parts of western Montana are vocally opposing the proposed compact, saying it could adversely affect their water rights and water usage.

Tribal officials said last week they still believe the compact should go forward and be ratified, and that it has multiple protections for water-users other than the tribes.

The compact, negotiated by the state Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, quantifies and clarifies the tribes’ water rights and calls for the state to pay $55 million for improvements to the Flathead Indian Irrigation System and other water and conservation projects on the reservation north of Missoula.

In February, the commission recommended sending the agreement to the Legislature for approval. Williams has been a member of the commission since November.

Williams’ 132-page bill outlines the compact, includes bonding for the $55 million, and authorizes its ratification by the state. The tribes and the U.S. Congress also have to agree to the compact to make it effective.

A hearing on HB629 hasn’t been scheduled, although it was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

Yet another bill related to the compact, Senate Bill 265, was heard Friday by the House Natural Resources Committee.

SB265, sponsored by Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, would extend the water-rights compact commission for another two years, so it could renegotiate the compact, if necessary.

Scores of irrigators and landowners who said they’re concerned about the effects of the compact testified for the bill Friday, saying the Legislature shouldn’t rush into adopting such a complex document that will affect water rights for generations to come.

Williams said if people are concerned about what’s in the compact, a full hearing on the agreement before a legislative committee can address those concerns.

“That’s the point of a hearing – to understand what the issues are, and allow legislators to learn about it,” she said. “It can be a very effective mode for public dialogue.”

When asked why the GOP-controlled Legislature would approve her bill and the compact, when the Republican legislator most familiar with the issue has decided to pull back, Williams said she’s “always been an optimist.”

“We all need to rally and give this bill as productive a discussion as we can,” she said.

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