Western Montana News

Jun 19, 2013 7:03 PM by Dennis Bragg - KPAX News

BIA sees challenges without Flathead water agreement

ST. IGNATIUS - The lead federal negotiator for the Flathead Water compact told Mission Valley irrigators on Wednesday that there will be major issues to deal with in the coming years if the proposed settlement is abandoned.

But Bureau of Indian Affairs Senior Attorney Duane Mecham says the agency is interested in seeing if there are ways to keeping working together to resolve the stalled negotiations.

The future of the Flathead Water Compact, and a separate water use agreement with the Flathead Joint Board of Control, was left in limbo when the Montana Legislature decided not to ratify the agreement.

During a special meeting with the FJBC Wednesday, BIA attorney Duane Mecham told irrigators the lack of an agreement doesn't remove the need to satisfy legal rulings to preserve strong water flows, and protect bull trout under the Endangered Species Act.

However, with irrigators appealing for help, Mecham offered assurances BIA is willing to work with local farmers and ranchers, as well as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to see if concerns can be ironed out.

"We've done a remarkable job as stewards of the land. We're asking for your help. To help us to continue that stewardship," said one Ronan irrigator.

"If we need to go an alternative route we're willing to discuss that, to get to a better sense that, as a federal project the irrigation community that it serves has a better comfort level," said Mecham.

Partners involved in the water compact are starting to draft reports recommending next steps on the water compact that should be completed this summer. The Joint Board of Control is preparing its own list of concerns that should be done in the next few weeks.

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