This is the second time the proposed settlement of water rights under the 1855 Hellgate Treaty has come before the Legislature. The first version, hammered out through several years of negotiations, failed to make it past GOP lawmakers two years ago. They were concerned how the pact would impact farmers and ranchers in the Flathead Basin.
That opened the door for additional negotiations between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the State of Montana and the U.S. Government. The revised compact was released last month and is generating a combination of support and criticism.
State Senator Chas Vincent of Libby requested a draft of the bill to implement the agreement, which was delivered Tuesday and entered as a formal proposal today. Senate Bill 262 sets the stage for the Legislature to endorse the treaty, with the measure referred to the Judiciary Committee for consideration.
Vincent chaired the special interim committee that spent several months a year ago reviewing the pros and cons of the compact, setting the stage for the renewed talks that started last summer.
The agreement is likely to generate considerable interest as it moves through the Legislature. Many groups, including some farm and ranch groups, are calling the Flathead Compact the best way to resolve water management issues, and lay the ground work for irrigation system improvements and better fish and wildlife habitat without lawsuits. But many irrigators continue to oppose the agreement, saying its taking away their water rights and management of their lands, especially in the Mission Valley.