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Water rights aren't drying up

| February 2, 2023 12:00 AM

Water rights aren’t drying up

The Leader received a handwritten letter last week from a Sanders County resident, claiming “all water users are about to lose their water rights to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.”

It’s not the first letter we’ve received making such a claim. Nor, I suspect, will it be the last.

So far, I haven’t seen a shred of evidence that it’s true.

I’ve been covering the evolution of the water compact for a few years now, and legitimate water rights don’t appear to be drying up on or off the reservation. Instead, I’ve seen conscientious, smart and experienced people, appointed by both the Governor and the Tribes, create the first-of-its-kind water management board, established specifically to approve new and existing uses of water on the Flathead Reservation to both tribal and non-tribal landowners. It does not, however, have jurisdiction over irrigation water delivered by the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.

Water compacts are nothing new. Senate Bill 76 established the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission back in 1979 to negotiate on behalf of the state with Montana’s Indian tribes and the federal government. Reserved water rights have been claimed, and compacts signed for seven Indian reservations (the Flathead was the final one), and for national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges, and federally designated wild and scenic rivers.

The agreements with tribal nations, once negotiated, must be ratified by the Montana Legislature and the respective tribal councils and approved by the appropriate federal authorities. The CSKT Compact was approved by the Legislature in 2015, by Congress, the President, and the Tribal Council in late 2020, and signed by the Secretary of Interior in September 2021.

Naysayers complain that the compact is hard to understand – “deliberately full of confusing legalese, so that the average person cannot begin to understand it,” wrote a Kalispell resident.

Absolutely! Water rights are complicated to begin with – and the treaty obligations, layered jurisdictions and patchwork of land ownership on the Flathead Reservation make matters even more convoluted. But it doesn’t mean the document is illegitimate or that it gives away anyone’s right to use water on or off the reservation.

Curiously, most of the letters we’ve received claiming the authors’ water rights are in jeopardy come from property owners in Flathead or Sanders County.

A Lakeside resident wrote, “As a senior, I already face enough problems with my home and property due to things like taxes and adding this very confusing unconstitutional water compact is something I shouldn’t have to worry about.”

Actually, unless this senior citizen inhabits reservation land within Flathead County, the compact hasn’t changed the process of filing for water rights an iota. Off-reservation landowners who haven’t filed a claim, or have changed their water use over the years, still need to head to the local Department of Natural Resources and Conservation office or visit dnrc.mt.gov and fill out the requisite form.

Now that the Flathead Reservation Water Management Board is operational, and the Office of the Engineer has opened its doors on Main Street in Ronan, all claims for new or existing water use on the reservation get filed there.

While it can be a mind-boggling process, it’s the one we’ve been using for quite some time. The most significant difference is that water users on the reservation have a path forward for the first time since the mid 1990s when the state Supreme Court told the state to quit assigning water rights on reservations until compacts were in place. So, in addition handling new claims, the office will begin to process around 3,000 registrations for existing uses that were filed with the DNRC before the compact was ratified.

Still worried? I’d suggest tuning in to a board meeting either in person or via Zoom. The next one is Feb. 9 from 3-5 p.m.

You’re apt to see five people, seated at a long table, with a staff that includes hydrologists and water conservation specialists, making steady headway on a daunting process. In the past 12 months, they’ve authorized the construction of more than 250 wells for individuals and small businesses across the reservation.

They’re also putting procedures in place to wrangle a broader range of applications, including those for city wells, small subdivisions and stock-water allowances, and are beginning – for the first time in three decades – to issue water rights for those 3,000 registrations that have been languishing with the DNRC.

That doesn’t sound like water thievery to me.