Western Montana News

Feb 19, 2013 5:05 PM by Dennis Bragg - KPAX News

Parties ready to proceed on Flathead water compact

PABLO - The parties who are hammering out an agreement for long-term management of water in the Flathead Basin say they're ready to vote on whether to submit the pact to the Legislature.

However, questions remain over the impacts of a court ruling that may block a separate agreement covering water rights in the Mission Valley.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the State of Montana and federal agencies announced on Tuesday that they've agreed on the latest revisions to the proposed water rights settlement first issued last fall.

Those revisions were made to the proposed Water Rights Compact, as well as the documents to manage the agreement that stemmed from public meetings held around the region earlier this winter.

Those terms are what the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission will ask the Legislature to ratify, ending years of negotiations over water use in the Flathead Basin.

The commission will meet a final time Feb. 26 in Helena to vote on the recommendation to forward the settlement to state lawmakers.

After the Legislature's ratification, both the tribe and Congress will also have to approve the settlement.

The unsettled part of the situation hinges on a ruling last Friday from Lake County Judge C.B. McNeil. McNeil said the Flathead Joint Board of Control, which has represented irrigators in the water talks, doesn't have the authority to sign an agreement that would "assign" water rights to the tribes or other parties.

The Western Montana Water Users Association has been fighting the agreement, expressing fears about losing their water rights and what that may mean for their farms and ranches.

The Joint Board of Control has been trying to calm their fears, saying the settlement offers a better solution for managing water than a lengthy court battle.

Since the issues in the lawsuit filed by the Water Users Association may still be subject to further legal action, the Water Rights Commission will recommend the Legislature go ahead and approve the larger water pact, "contingent on approval" of an agreement with the water users.

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