RONAN — Last Wednesday the Lake County Board of Commissioners presented a scathing criticism of Senator Daines and other supporters on the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, the federal legislation that would ratify the Tribes’ water settlement and water rights compact. After the meeting, Tribal officials said the Lake County Commissioners have a long history of opposing numerous CSKT efforts. Throughout the presentation the three commissioners — Gale Decker, Bill Barron and Dave Stipe — said they weren’t anti-tribal but were concerned about the impacts of the MWRPA on Lake County physical and fiscal resources. They also complained that they didn’t have a seat in the many-years long negotiation process to resolve the Flathead Nation’s claims against the State of Montana and the United States. Neither the MWRPA, nor the compact resolve any claims by or against Lake County.
Commissioner Decker told the audience packed into the Ronan Community Center that everybody on and off the Flathead Indian Reservation needs to be aware of the impacts of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act (MWRPA). Though he didn’t provide any clear specifics, he said the Montana Legislature-passed Federal Reserved Water Rights Compact legislation differed from the MWRPA introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and that was a concern of the Lake County Board of Commissioners. The MWRPA was co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, (D-Mont.) and Daines, and has received praise from nearly all statewide elected officials.
The MWRPA has the backing of the Department of Interior, the Department of Justice and the Trump Administration as well as many diverse agricultural groups in Montana. It also has opposition in Montana.
“There are multiple differences between the [MWRPA] settlement and the Compact,” Decker said. “We saw some very troubling things in the Act and its effects on Lake County, and also off the reservation in neighboring counties.”
Decker referred to the MWRPA and its settlement provisions as a “contract” containing ambiguous language that needs clarification or removal. He said that changes to the perceived ambiguities can be made in the MWRPA prior to its passage. The examples of ambiguities provided by Decker, however, refer to language that is contained many other water settlements that were previously approved by Congress. Also, he also said funds needed be provided to Lake County for mitigation of its impacts. However, long-standing federal policy prohibits Indian water settlements from providing direct benefits to non-Indians and local governments, like Lake County.
Decker provided the audience a bit of background information on the MWRPA and called it “bad bill that shouldn’t be supported by anybody” including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
The CSKT FRWRC was first introduced in the Montana Legislature in 2013 but it didn’t get out of the House Judiciary Committee. A second introduction in 2015 at the Montana Legislature was ratified. Sen. Tester carried the bill to the U.S. Senate in 2016 but it didn’t have the backing of the Obama Administration due to its $2.3 billion price tag and Sen. Daines backing due to that and other concerns of his.
Following tweaks to the original FRWRC bill including cutting its cost to $1.9 billion, renaming it the Montana Water Rights Protection Act and other things to sate the concerns of Sen. Daines, he introduced the bill in this Senate session.
One of the big contentious MWRPA bones seems to be the $1.9 billion settlement funds attached to accomplish, among other things, the reconstruction of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project. Approximately 85 percent of the acreage served by FIIP is non-Indian owned. It was constructed in the early 1900s and through the years inadequate maintenance has led to serious damage to the irrigation infrastructure that results in waste of water diverted from Flathead Indian Reservation rivers and streams. An estimated 40 percent of irrigation water reaches its destination.
“It appears that the senator, if he can secure the blessing of Congress, is going to load a plane with $1.9 billion in taxpayer dollars and fly it to the Pablo Tribal Complex without revealing to the public the nature of the claims required to justify the amount. The senator is willing to take the tribes’ word that the damage claims are real and verifiable,” Decker stated in a column in the Missoulian in late January.
Decker said the commissioners are concerned and want to know how the funds would be expended. He also floated the abandonment of FIIP.
“Maybe, it’s time to abandon [the irrigation project],” Decker said. “Different agencies have run [the project] and it hasn’t worked. Maybe it should just be abandoned and cut the losses.”
Decker then added that he wasn’t for the abandonment. The CSKT have looked into that and the cost of abandonment and rehabilitation of its footprint would cost over $1.6 billion.
Decker expressed concern about the CSKT distributing portions of the MWRPA settlement funds to tribal members through per-capita payments. However, there is no avenues to do that in the MWRPA and Sen. Daines is on record confirming that.
Commissioner Bill Barron said the commissioners are concerned about the influx of people as a result of the re-construction of the FIIP infrastructure. It is estimated that 6,000 jobs will be created through the life of the re-construction. The concern is that many if not most will be from off the reservation, and will be Indians from other reservations. The influx would also include drug cartel members.
Barron claimed that Lake County would need a 200-300 beds jail to accommodate the increase of crime that will make the crime related to the Bakken oil fields pale in comparison.
The commissioners also expressed their concerns that the Tribes would have jurisdiction over county roadways and public and private right-of-ways on the reservation via the MWRPA, though nothing in the MWRPA contains such a statement. Sen. Daines countered that in a Jan. 10 press release.
“The MWRPA (Montana Water Rights Protection Act) does not extend tribal jurisdiction over county roads or rights-of-way,” Daines stated. “MWRPA helps facilitate rehabilitation of the FIIP [Flathead Indian Irrigation Project] and will have no bearing on any current court proceeding.”
The commissioners were also concerned about the National Bison Range, the school trust land exchanges, the 90,000 acre-feet of water from Hungry Horse Reservoir, private property rights, off-reservation water rights, impacts on local infrastructure, payment in lieu of taxes, and Public Law-280.
Decker said that Lake County should consider dissolvement, with portions of Lake County becoming portions of Flathead and Missoula counties because of their much higher mill levies than Lake County. Thus, they would be better able to address the fiscal drains, the commissioners believe would be created by the MWRPA.