- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Discussions have been held on reopening negotiations for a water-rights compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to include protections for irrigators living on or near the Flathead reservation, the chairman of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission said Tuesday.

But the dispute over who controls the water and how much is allocated to farmers, ranchers and others through the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project has intensified, and it is unclear whether a deal can be reached outside of a courtroom.

The hardening positions of those involved in the conflict were apparent Tuesday during a meeting of an interim legislative panel studying a proposed water-use agreement between irrigators and the tribes that was an appendix to the larger water-rights compact.

“This compact and the water-use agreement is a takeaway of the water we’re already getting, and I don’t understand why we’re even having this discussion,” rancher Jerry Laskody said. “I’m not willing to give up my water right to anybody.”

The Montana Legislature last year rejected the Flathead compact, which was the product of years of negotiations, and four lawsuits have been filed since then over claims to the water flowing on or through the northwestern Montana reservation.

Efforts to salvage the compact and the water-use agreement are continuing. But the Flathead Joint Board of Control, which negotiated the water-use agreement with the tribes on behalf of three irrigation districts, disbanded after the Legislature’s rejection, creating the need to revisit the agreement, said Chris Tweeten, chairman of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission.

Commission staff and the tribes have had discussions on whether to narrowly reopen negotiations to incorporate the water-use agreement and its water allocations into the larger compact, he said.

“If changes are needed in the compact, they need to be agreed to by both sides,” Tweeten said. “Whatever one side might want to go forward with … can’t be dictated to the other.”

It may be difficult to reach a deal. Ranchers like Laskody say the agreement would give them less water than they need and are currently using, and it denies them what they see as a property right by giving the water rights to the tribes.

“That causes real difficulties for people who own the land and have put the water to good use for 100 years,” said Flathead Irrigation District attorney John Metropoulos, who represents the largest of the three irrigation districts served by the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.

The district remains willing to negotiate a settlement, but resolving the matter through litigation may be necessary, he said.

Salish and Kootenai attorney Rhonda Swaney said the tribes fully support the compact and acknowledge the need to amend it since the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs took control with the dissolution of the Flathead Joint Board of Control.

But the tribes don’t intend to reopen negotiations fully or change what is in the agreement, she said.

The tribes recently filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to declare they have the rights to all the water on the reservation and to block three other lawsuits in state courts involving water-rights claims.

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