Water craziness in the Flathead Basin

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The Bullock administration and Montana legislators have one more chance to protect the waters of the Flathead Basin and ensure their availability for future generations. In regard to both aquatic invasive species (AIS) and the water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), wise and workable solutions are at hand. Unfortunately, key Democrats are fouling the AIS fight, while some Republicans are trying to sabotage the water agreement.

In regard to AIS, especially zebra and quagga mussels, everyone knows the whole game is prevention. Once they infest our waterways, it’s too late. For Montana, the devastation would be economic, cultural, and even spiritual. Fisheries, agriculture, hydroelectric facilities, and the place we love and hope to hand down to future generations, would be forever harmed.

For years, state agencies allowed uninspected boats to roll into the state, ignoring calls for stronger action from many parties, including the Flathead Basin Commission (FBC). That’s why exotic mussels entered the upper Missouri, particularly Tiber Reservoir. The last legislature, recognizing the urgent situation, gave Montana agencies a whopping $11 million. Yet in 2018, there were still gaping holes in the state’s perimeter defenses, while the much-vaunted “firewall” around Tiber was a fraud. 2017’s House Bill 622 mandated a Flathead Basin AIS Pilot Program, to be administered by the FBC. But after the legislature adjourned, John Tubbs, Director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), defunded the FBC. He then fired Executive Director Caryn Miske for flimsy reasons, all vigorously refuted by the FBC’s Executive Committee. Tubbs routinely impeded the FBC’s ability to lobby and repeatedly violated MCA 2-15-121, which mandates that agencies shall not interfere in the work of an attached commission, which “shall exercise its ... policymaking functions independently of the department and without approval or control of the department.” Meanwhile, the legislature looked the other way as the FBC was turned into a wholly-owned subsidiary of the DNRC.

The politics get even stranger. The Flathead Basin is a watershed of the highest importance to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. But even as Tubbs dismantled the FBC, he has also been a key proponent of the eminently reasonable CSKT Water Compact, helping secure its passage in the 2015 legislature. But many of those same Flathead legislators most engaged with AIS are ardent opponents of the compact. Now, as the decades-in-the-making water deal awaits passage by Congress, legislators such as Al Olszewski and Mark Noland are pushing a fringe idea self-labeled “The People’s Compact.” Concocted not by the “the people” but by a small group of far-right, racist activists, it also isn’t a “compact,” since it isn’t agreed to by all parties, and never will be. All this scheme might deliver are decades of lawsuits, ruin for Montana’s irrigators and economy, and heightened acrimony in our communities.

In short, key Democrats are defending a failed approach to AIS and assaulting pillars of good government, while numerous Republicans seek to destroy a historic, workable, and eminently fair water agreement that safeguards the rights of all Montanans.

Let’s hope we can all step away from these competing forms of craziness. Perhaps we should look to the CSKT, the only governmental entity that has over the long run advocated for practical solutions and responsible management of the irreplaceable waters of the Flathead Basin.

This much is clear: we need both the restoration of the FBC as an independent commission, and also the speedy passage of the Flathead Water Compact. We must advocate both to policymakers in Helena and Washington. To protect our waters for the generations to come, it’s now or never.

— Thompson Smith served for 12 years as a governor-appointed citizen member of the Flathead Basin Commission, and was the FBC Chair in 2012-13 and 2015-17.

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