State, tribes resume marathon water talks 

The Salish and Kootenai Tribes and state and federal officials are embarking on another round of talks to discuss Flathead Reservation water issues.

The meeting with the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission and federal representatives is set for Sept. 13 in Helena. It is the second formal meeting the groups have scheduled since agreeing to attempt negotiations, rather than settle their claims in court.

At center stage in the talks, which are expected to take place for years, is the settlement of federal reserved water rights, which are rights to use water “implied from an act of Congress, a treaty, or an executive order establishing a tribal or federal reservation.” Under the law, the amount of water a reservation is entitled to depends on the purpose for which the land was reserved.

Participants say aboriginal off-reservation claims also may be raised in the Salish and Kootenai talks.

The nine-member compact commission was created in 1979 as part of the ongoing statewide stream adjudication process. Along with tribes, the state has had federal water claims from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.

Once all outstanding issues are settled, any proposed Flathead Reservation compact must be approved by the Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council, the Montana Legislature, various federal agencies and/or Congress, and the Montana Water Court before it goes into effect.

In Montana, only two tribal compacts have completed the gauntlet. The Northern Cheyenne’s reserved rights were sealed in 1992, and the Chippewa-Cree Tribe’s water agreement was ratified by Congress and signed by President Clinton late last year. The Chippewa-Cree compact, which took 12 years to complete, includes about $51 million for water studies, dam rehabilitation, various economic development projects, and planning for a new domestic supply system on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation northeast of Great Falls. Among other provisions, the agreement calls for an annual tribal allocation of 10,000 acre feet of water from Lake Elwell, a Marias River reservoir.

Rocky Boy’s leaders wanted the issue settled by now, but the U.S. House unexpectedly stripped $16 million from the bill as a cost-cutting measure. The funding is to be discussed again this month at House-Senate conference meeting. Negotiators on the Fort Peck Reservation completed their talks in 1985, but that compact is still pending before the federal government. An agreement that was completed between the state and Crow Tribe last year is now in question because newly elected tribal leaders have declared it invalid. On the Fort Belknap Reservation, compact negotiations are set to resume on Sept. 9, officials say.

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