Governor Bullock, Attorney General Fox, Agriculture Groups & Water Users Support Compact
(Helena, Mont.)—This morning the first legislative hearing on the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes’ Water Compact, a bipartisan agreement to define tribal water rights and protect Montana water users, was held in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where farmers, ranchers, and irrigators from across the state —as well as numerous elected officials— filled the Capitol halls to support the Compact.
Chief among the supporters were representatives from both Governor Steve Bullock’s office and the office of Attorney General Tim Fox.
“The Compact will benefit all Montanans, tribal, non-tribal, Democrat and Republican,”
said Governor Steve Bullock.
“The extensive negotiations have resulted in a Compact that protects homes, farms, ranches and individual water users from the burden of litigation that would occur without the Compact. Montana’s agriculture industries are too important to our economy and the livelihoods of the citizens of our state to not pass the Compact.”
Attorney General Tim Fox cited the exhaustive review process that his office conducted of the Compact and its possible outcomes.
“We have reviewed the draft Compact carefully and believe it complies with both the Montana and U.S. Constitutions, as well as Montana water law,”
Attorney General Fox said.
“We have thoroughly considered how the Compact will impact Montanans and the alternative scenario of what will happen if it is not approved. Passing the Compact is the best option for Montanans. It protects water rights, private property values, and ensures that water users both on and off the reservation have access to the water resources they need.”
Senator Chas Vincent, the sponsor of the bill and former Chair of the Water Policy Interim Committee spoke to the Committee on the challenges individual water users would encounter without the Compact.
“We are giving Montanans an alternative to litigation with this Compact,”
said Sen. Vincent.
“Without the Compact Montanans will be left trying to defend their water rights against the claims that the tribes will file with a 1855 or ‘time immemorial’ priority date and are at risk of losing their rights. We want to make sure that the water rights of Montanans are protected and the best way to do that is to pass the Compact.”
“For those who are opposed to the Compact on principle, they can still litigate their rights—the Compact doesn’t prevent that,”
“What it does do is prevent the rest of Montana’s water users from being forced into litigation. Those who oppose it can have their cake and eat it too—they are protected under the Compact, but it won’t prevent them from going to court if they so choose. It would be irresponsible to not be fully informed on this legislation. As legislators we must take the time to study this issue and make an educated decision that is best for the State of Montana.”
Agriculture groups, including the Montana Stockgrowers Association, the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, the Montana Water Resources Association and water users from across the state also attended the hearing to voice their concerns for their industries if the Compact doesn’t pass, citing that the Compact is a fair and equitable compromise that prevents litigation and defines the tribal rights while ensuring stock water access and protection of existing water rights.
“I’ve been through adjudication, and I know how expensive it is,”
said Gene Curry, President of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
“Just the litigation to defend our rights in court has cost us in excess of two hundred thousand dollars. If the legislature fails to pass this Compact they will be subjecting farmers and ranchers across the state to similar litigation costs. It will be expensive, lengthy, and destructive.”
Lorents Grosfield, a former member of the Water Compact Commission and former Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked the Committee to consider how the litigation would unfold if the Compact does not pass.
“It is certain that the claims the tribe will have to file will be larger and more extensive than the rights granted in the Compact. The Tribes’ expert evidence from reputable anthropologists and historians will be based largely on research of items like the Lewis and Clark Journals, trapper’s and mountain men journals and statements, records from the many old military forts around Montana,”
“I submit that none of these will be easy—or cheap—to refute in a court setting.”
Compact supporters from across the state—including irrigation district members, farmers, ranchers, municipalities, and impacted businesses—were able to testify in the 90-minute comment period allowed for proponents of the legislation. The Committee will likely take executive action on the bill in the coming week.
Farmers And Ranchers for Montana (FARM) is a coalition of hundreds of farmers and ranchers, united with local leaders, tribal governments, businesses, water-users, and other Montanans who support the approval of a Water Compact.