Many in Montana might mistakenly think that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT)-Montana Compact is now written into law and because the state has moved on, so should its citizens. The state tends to forget that the constitutionality of the compact vote in 2015 is under legal challenge and a decision on that challenge is expected soon. Regardless of that outcome, the battle to defeat the compact is just getting started.
For more than four years, Concerned Citizens of Western Montana has tried to bring factual material about the compact to light including practical, real life examples of what this compact, if ratified, will mean to people’s lives and livelihoods.
What follows is a chilling example of an issue remark on a significant groundwater claim on a longstanding ranch in western Montana. If this doesn’t send a chill down people’s spines, we don’t know what will.
We recently received a copy of a “REVIEW ABSTRACT OF A WATER RIGHT CLAIM” issued by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for agricultural property situated within the exterior boundaries of the former Flathead Reservation.
The family forwarding the document recently purchased their property based upon an anticipated groundwater right that would support the agricultural business historically associated with the ranch.
AFTER the property closing, the title company sent the new owners a letter explaining that they would not transfer the water right because of concerns about the CSKT water compact.
This information was not made known to the purchasers at closing; it became known later. To add insult to injury, the title insurance excluded “all things Indian related,” so the title company is protected from liability.
And now this: The state has added the following issue remark on the water claim for this property:
"IT IS NOT CLEAR WHETHER THIS CLAIM IS A STATE-BASED WATER RIGHT OR PART OF THE TRIBAL WATER RIGHT AS DEFINED IN THE CONFEDERATED SALISH AND KOOTENAI–MONTANA COMPACT."
How is it the water right might be “part of the tribal water right” when the well is located on private property?
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What does this mean to the family that purchased this land with a hope for a future agricultural enterprise? What implications will it have on the value of their property or their ability to earn any living from it?
We cannot help but wonder if the Montana Stockgrowers and Farm Bureau would still support the compact in light an example such as this. Is this what compact proponents touted as the certainty and finality that we would all enjoy with the passage of the CSKT water compact?
To the Compact Commission and legislators who voted to ratify the water compact we ask:
You proposed to cede state jurisdiction over reservation water in exchange for a “promise” to PROTECT EXISTING USES OF WATER. Isn’t this family’s situation exactly what the state spent decades negotiating to avoid?
A recent report by the DNRC for the Kootenai and Clark Fork River basins, covering all of western Montana, says consumptive uses of water in western Montana are less than 2 percent of the total water supply.
If this report is accurate, why would this family or any other have to worry about losing their historic agricultural use of water or the diminishment of their property values?
Unfortunately, these concerns are valid because the state ceded most of the water in western Montana to the U.S. / CSKT. Then, instead of completing unbiased, comprehensive studies of the compact’s adverse impacts, the state proposed in the compact to confer financial immunity upon itself for any adverse impacts related to their “policy decision.”
The mask is coming off the water compact monster sooner than intended. One thing is clear: Montana willingly ceded a significant portion of its water resources and jurisdiction over it to the federal government / CSKT in the form of a water compact, leaving a very large number of its citizens with a very short end of the stick.
Terry Backs, of St. Ignatius, is a founder of Concerned Citizens of Western Montana, formed to educate and inform people about the CSKT Water Compact.