by Colleen Coyle, former Senior Water Master, Montana Water Court
On December 10, 2014, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission (RWRCC), and the United States reached agreement on a revised compact for CSKT reserved water rights. With approval by the RWRCC, the revised compact will be introduced at the 2015 Montana Legislature. This is the second time that the Montana Legislature will be considering a CSKT compact, having rejected the previous version during the 2013 session. This compact process has attracted national attention, including a New York Times article with this description of the 2013 version:
The proposed compact is 1,400 pages long, a decade in the making and bewilderingly complex. Essentially, it helps to lay out the water rights of the tribe[s] and water users like farmers and ranchers. It provides $55 million in state money to upgrade the reservation’s water systems. And it settles questions about water claims that go back to 1855, when the government guaranteed the tribes’ wide-reaching fishing rights across much of western Montana. Healy, Water Rights Tear at Indian Reservation, New York Times, April 22, 2013.
At least four lawsuits in different state and federal jurisdictions have already been filed over claims to water related to the CSKT reservation. Opinions differ on how best to quantify the CSKT reserved water rights. Some who oppose the revised Compact have indicated support for adjudication through litigation of the CSKT water rights. This article summarizes the adjudication process as it generally applies to CSKT and state-based water rights.
The United States began litigating Indian water rights for Montana tribes when it filed two lawsuits in 1975 on behalf of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Tribes and two lawsuits in 1979 on behalf of the Fort Peck tribes in federal court. [Read more…]