Western Montana News

Feb 27, 2013 3:18 PM by Dennis Bragg - KPAX News

Panel to forward water rights agreement to MT Legislature

HELENA - The Montana Legislature will be asked to sign off on a controversial agreement which outlines how water will be managed in the Flathead Basin in the coming decades.

Although there are still questions over how the agreement will impact irrigators in the Mission Valley, the panel that's spent years working out the Flathead Water Compact believes it's done what it can to come up with a workable agreement.

The Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission was charged with developing an agreement outlining how the water will be managed for fish and wildlife, agriculture and other uses in the decades to come, following court mandates to follow the original terms in the 1855 Hellgate Treaty.

The compact also sets up a mechanism for handling disputes, and administering new water right applications, which have been in limbo since the mid-90s.

The Commission voted Tuesday evening to forward the compact on to the Legislature for approval, with ratification to follow by Congress and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

But the water package goes to the Legislature with a bubble remaining in the pipe. That's the side question over whether the Flathead Joint Board of Control has the authority to sign the agreement on behalf of irrigators.

Lake County Judge C.B. McNeil has already ruled the board doesn't have the authority to "sign away" the water rights of farmers and ranchers. That ruling may still be subject to further legal action with an appeal to the State Supreme Court.

So the compact will be forwarded to the Legislature with that contingency also on the table.

But the commission remains praiseworthy of the compact. Chair Chris Tweeten says Legislative approval of the documents will allow the State Water Court to finalize the legal settlement and pave the way for an "orderly approach" to water management on the Reservation.

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