Daily Interlake OpEd 01/10/2015

The revised water rights compact between the Flathead tribes, the state of Montana and the United States was released for public review on Wednesday night.

After three public comment sessions on Friday and Saturday, the Montana Reserved Water Rights Commission will meet in Helena on Monday to approve the compact. We would prefer to say that the panel will meet to consider the compact, but let’s face it, this is a done deal.

So in the course of five days, Montanans are supposed to educate themselves on a complex negotiation that dates back more than a decade, and be able to make their voices heard about the 69-page proposal. 

That would be hard enough, but when you consider that the prior version of this compact actually totaled more than 1,400 pages when the various appendices were included, it is well near impossible for anyone to make an informed decision about every aspect of the agreement in such a short time. 

But perhaps opponents are right to not get bogged down in the particulars of the compact. Perhaps instead, Montanans need to look at the big picture and ask whether they really benefit from this deal, which will cost them $55 million in payments and the surrender of various water rights to the tribes.

Indeed, the main question Montanans need to ask themselves is what exactly do we get out of this compact. There are more than 20 pages assigned to the “Water Rights of the Tribes,” but nowhere does it spell out what the water rights are of the non-tribal citizens of Montana whether on the reservation or off. Nor does it adequately explain or justify the state of Montana ceding off-reservation water rights to the Salish and Kootenai.

Two precedents come to mind when thinking about the water compact, and neither is very reassuring. One is the Affordable Care Act, which we were told would leave your health care in your hands. “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan,” remember? Only you couldn’t. The most honest assessment of Obamacare actually came from former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who said Congress needed to pass the bill, so you could find out what was in it.

If and when the water compact is approved by the state Legislature, signed by the governor and then approved by Congress, we hope that everyone involved can say truthfully they know exactly what is in it and how it will affect all Montanans.

That wasn’t the case in another important piece of legislation approved by the Montana Legislature in 1997 that deregulated the electric utility industry. Before then Montana had some of the cheapest electric rates in the nation, but the power companies along with establishment politicians insisted that deregulation was necessary to provide consumers with long-term benefits. Those assurances proved to be nonsense, however, and deregulation resulted in higher prices and the collapse of the Montana Power Co. It was an unmitigated disaster.

Ever since then, we have learned to be cautious when politicians insist that legislation will benefit Montanans, but can’t exactly explain how.

The Flathead County Board of Commissioners on Thursday approved a letter stating its opposition to the water compact. Dissenting Commissioner Gary Krueger called the letter “crazy propaganda,” but we remember similar insults being tossed around when people questioned deregulation and Obamacare.

The Flathead water compact is too big, too important and too permanent to earn support unless all the questions are adequately answered about its long-term impact, and we don’t think five days is enough time to answer those questions. The Legislature, which turned down the earlier version of the compact in 2013, must remain skeptical. 

Don’t vote yes, unless you can assure Montana voters you know exactly how the compact will affect them and their own water rights and property values.