Written by Senator Jennifer Fielder SD 7

Some say it will utterly destroy farming, ranching, lives, and land values in northwestern Montana. Others argue there’s nothing to fear in the massive Salish-Kootenai water rights compact. Both sides agree the economic implications are perhaps the largest we will see in our lifetime. But there is strong disagreement over whether those outcomes will be good or bad.

In either case, billions of dollars in future land values and water rights are on the line. In addition, anywhere from $50 million to $1.5 billion in state and federal tax dollars may be required in payment to the tribe.  Advocates want the Montana legislature to sign the deal into law within the next few weeks. The CSKT tribe is understandably anxious for approval.

It is true this compact has been years in the making. An agreement must be reached. Unfortunately, it was only three weeks ago that the compact commission was ready to forward the one-thousand-plus-page, highly intricate proposal to the state legislature for our approval. As of this writing we still have not received the completed document or seen the accompanying bill.

We must extend the compact commission deadline to allow adequate time for review.  With only a few short weeks remaining in this year’s busy legislative session, it will be impossible for legislators to read the full agreement, understand the consequences, and make a responsible yes or no vote on this extremely vital decision.

Unlike most legislation, this decision will be permanent. We will not be able to make future adjustments like we typically do with other laws. Once ratified, this agreement will be forever binding upon our state, nation, and the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes. All parties must exercise extraordinary caution.

At this point few have read the lengthy compact, and even fewer understand it. Those who have strongly disagree over the projected outcome. Many irrigators say the reduced allotment of water will ruin farming operations and drive down land values. The tribe says the allocations will be sufficient.

Compared to other compacts, this one is incredibly complex. It includes unprecedented volumes of water, tribal controls extending well beyond the reservation boundary, and a new system of allocations separating water right from deeded land within the reservation. To further complicate matters, a recent court ruling determined a major element of the compact is unconstitutional.

This is a big deal unlike any we have seen before. The legislature and the public need time to analyze this very important agreement and give it the due diligence it deserves. That’s why I am supporting SB 265 to extend the compact deadline.  If corrections or clarifications are warranted, we will have time to seek thoughtful adjustments during the interim. If it truly is a good compact, it will be easily approved in the next legislative cycle. At least by then legislators will know more about the obligation we are being asked to permanently render upon present and future generations of Montana.

In closing, I will continue to support the efforts of the tribe to secure their rights and improve their communities. But I cannot vote in favor of a binding agreement of this magnitude without reading it and understanding the ramifications it will have on all the people I represent.

Rural Montana cannot afford another economic setback. The stakes are way too high for a rush decision.

Respectfully,

Senator Jennifer Fielder

Montana State Senate – District 7

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