HELENA – Before Gov. Steve Bullock on Friday signed the bill ratifying the Flathead tribal water rights compact, tribal Chairman Vernon Finley said it has one primary goal – “protect the water” – and that he hopes opponents will recognize it’s nothing more than that.
“That’s basically it: Let’s share the resource and be good neighbors and let’s work together for that common goal,” he told a packed room of compact supporters at the Capitol. “There is no underlying trick that we’re trying to pull.
“My hope is that history will finally let (compact opponents) understand that’s the case.”
Moments later, Bullock signed Senate Bill 262, which gives state approval to a negotiated water-rights compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in western Montana.
“The passage of this compact demonstrates that when we work together to find solutions, we can tackle the most complex and contentious challenges and find ways to ensure that the voices of all parties are heard,” the governor said.
The governor’s signature comes four days after a group of irrigators on the Flathead Indian Reservation sued in state District Court to block signing or implementation of SB262.
The suit filed by members of the Flathead Joint Board of Control says the bill required approval by two-thirds of each house of the Legislature, and should be invalidated because it passed only by simple majorities.
Attorney General Tim Fox, who supports the compact, asked the court to dismiss the suit, which his chief solicitor called “frivolous.”
There was scant talk of the lawsuit at Friday’s bill-signing ceremony, where as many as 150 compact supporters crammed into the governor’s conference room in the east wing of the Capitol.
But Finley, Bullock and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, all acknowledged the opposition, and the difficult and lengthy path traveled to hammer out the compact – and the road it has yet to travel.
Finley said it’s only “halftime” in the process, and noted the tribes and the U.S. Congress also must ratify the compact before it’s enacted.
The compact settles the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ water rights, both on and off the reservation. The tribes would have rights to water that flows into the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project on the reservation, but they’ve said irrigators will continue to get water to support current uses and that the tribes would share water during droughts.
The compact also includes the promise of a multimillion-dollar upgrade of the irrigation project’s pumping system and funding for other water-conservation projects.
Opponents have argued the compact gives the tribes too much power over water on and off the reservation, and could threaten water supplies for current irrigators.
Finley, however, said much of the opposition is based on “misinformation and fear,” and that opponents should heed the words of tribal elder Patrick Pierre, who said throughout the decade-long negotiations that the main goal is to “protect the water,” for both tribal and non-tribal members on and around the reservation.
“In the end, when this is all said and done, history will show (this) is one more thing the tribes were able to negotiate, to come to common ground,” he said. “All those fears will fade into the past, all those fears will fade into history.”
Vincent also complimented the hard work of staff and others in putting together the compact. Vincent, an opponent of the compact two years ago, paid homage to those who helped him learn more about it and who agreed to adjustments that improved it.
“We would not be here today if it were not for Chairman Finley and the Tribal Council, who agreed in the end to make some changes to this compact,” he said.