The following is a Letter to the Editor by Senator Verdell Jackson. Thank you, Senator. This compact is not ready and sponsoring SB 265 is the right thing to do!
When the United States set aside land for Indian reservations, sufficient water was reserved to fulfill the purposes of the reservations. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) Reserved Water Rights Compact has been submitted to the Legislature. A 131-page bill has been drafted to grant the water rights and specify the amount and use, but the Legislature needs more time.
Legal availability of water is a major constraint on getting water rights because it prevents use of water when it may be physically available. Power generation and in- stream flow are nonconsumptive water uses, but in Montana they are treated similarly when applying for a water right. Also, consumptive uses are frequently grossly overstated, but still have an impact on legal availability. If the CSKT is allocated all of the water that is now legally available, no surface water rights can be issued, except those issued by water leased from CSKT.
The Compact contains off-reservation senior water rights in 11 counties that set minimum flows on rivers and streams which may negatively impact water rights, especially irrigators. Based on scientific data, farmers want to know how frequently they will not have irrigation water. I see this bill as a contract that cannot be changed once it is passed by the Legislature. It is forever.
I cannot look at this bill as a political document. Assumptions, explanations, opinions are no longer relevant. As a legislator, I represent my constituents and have an obligation to read and understand every page in this contract to determine the impact on the legal availability of water in western Montana after the Compact and into the future. I must foresee any unintended consequences. A negotiated compact is required to be fair and equitable by law.
I believe that the hearings on the Compact were not well done and changes were made in the Compact up to mid-February. This along with the unprecedented magnitude of this Compact, a $55 million fiscal note, and a district court law suit has created distrust. For this reason, I had Senate Bill 265 drafted to extend the Compact deadline to provide time for the public and legislature to analyze this very important agreement and give it the due diligence it deserves. SB 265 will be heard in House Natural Resources at 3:00 pm on Friday, March 22, at the Capitol in Helena.
Senator Verdell Jackson