Posted: Jun 28, 2012 8:57 PM by Dennis Bragg - KPAX News
Updated: Jun 29, 2012 11:55 AM
POLSON- Decades of uncertainty on the issue of tribal water rights are finally moving toward certainty for the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, but the complicated agreement is raising questions from people who haven't closely watched the process.
Water is the lifeblood of any region, but in the Flathead watershed it's especially front and center. From the spectacular high country, to the vast waters of Flathead Lake and the fertile lands in between, water forms the connecting bond of this special region.
For years, people in the region have tried to draft a water "compact" to comply with the 1855 Hellgate Treaty, the last to be resolved with the tribes in Montana.
Now, a draft plan may be approved in time to go to the Montana Legislature in 2013.
The draft outlines how the tribes, U.S. government agencies and the State of Montana will manage water, from the high mountains through the many dams and reservoirs, downstream through farms and towns.
The pact establishes a process to assess all existing water claims, ensure water for irrigation and fish, use a joint panel to review and administer future water rights, and acquire settlement funds to make water use more efficient in the future.
However, the complexity of the compact is also raising fears.
During a briefing by the Joint Board of Control in Polson this week, many non-tribal residents worried how the rules will impact life on the reservation.
One woman in the crowd said she didn't understand why the state couldn't manage her water rights. "Just because I happen to live in the exterior boundaries of the reservation it doesn't make sense to me that I should be under a different standard," she said.
Others asked why the agreemment is necessary, even wondering how the issue of "owning" rights measured up to Native American ideals of sharing the land.
Tribal leaders say they've merely been trying to comply with court rulings, while still honoring their traditions.
"It comes in, not because the tribes asked for it, it comes in because the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequent courts have told tribes that's how it will be played," said CSKT attorney John Carter.
CSKT Tribal Councilman Steve Lozar said there's one thing they won't negotiate. "That is, our heart and belief in our feel that the spirituality of this place that houses the bones of our ancestors."
That past, and the future, are what all the parties of the agreement are hoping to preserve for all peoples.
The comment period on the draft plan has been extended to July 16.The plan must not only be approved by the Montana Legislature but also Congress.
PHOTO: McDonald Dam, taken by Dennis Bragg