By Senator Verdell Jackson

When the United States set aside land for Indian Reservations in 1855, water was reserved to fulfill the purposes of the reservations. In Montana, the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission directed by Chris Tweeten negotiated a Compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) for water both on and off their reservation.  The Compact was submitted to the Legislature and a hearing was held on March 27 in House Judiciary.

During the Compact hearing, Chris Tweeten made the alarming statement that the State of Montana proposed the off reservation Tribal water rights that set minimum flows on rivers and streams in 11 counties.  During low flows these senior Tribal water rights target irrigators using surface or ground water, by exempting most other existing uses such as non irrigation wells, businesses and municipalities. Farming and future development will be negatively impacted in an area that affects more than 350,000 people in western Montana because the over reaching off reservation water rights give authority to stop existing irrigation and new water rights.

Montana citizens who made the trip to Helena expect the State of Montana to protect their water rights as consistent with the State Constitution, not to negotiate them away.  To add insult to injury, the abstracts for these tribal water rights in the Compact are made out to the Federal Government, in trust for CSKT.  Either the Federal Government or the Tribe can stop irrigators from using water during a drought.  The Federal Government has been a relatively quiet party to this 3 way negotiation, but it is now obvious that they are taking authority over water in Western Montana through this Compact in violation of the 10th Amendment of the US Constitution and Montana’s Constitution.

Measuring the actual flow of water in the rivers over a long period of time is likely the most accurate measure of water depletion resulting from water uses.  The USGS (United States Geological Survey) has been measuring river flows for over 100 years.  An analysis of the flow and volume of the Clark ForkRiver in western Montana close to where it flows into Idaho shows that more water is flowing now than in 1911.  The average flow of the Clark ForkRiver has been 20,000 cubic feet per second (8,976,000 gallons per minute) since 1911.  To compute the human impact the average volume of the first 45 years (13.901 million acre feet) was compared to the next 45 year period (14.676 million acre feet).  During the last 45 years there is 775,000 acre feet more water flowing in the Clark ForkRiver into Idaho.  Building Hungry Horse Dam in 1955 has eliminated the traditional low flows and increased flow.  The human impact is so insignificant that it is not measurable.

Time is critical. Contact your state legislators and ask them to vote against the Compact bill, HB 629, carried by Democrat Representative Kathleen Williams from Bozeman.  My bill, SB 265, extends the Compact Commission and provides more time to develop a fair and equitable Compact if HB 629 fails.  This issue should not be partisan since water is important to all of us.

Senator Verdell Jackson