CSKT Negotiated Water Rights Compact – Good for Montana Agriculture

By Jay Bodner, John Youngberg, and Mike Murphy

The success of Montana’s agriculture industry is dependent upon water and water right certainty. It is easily the single most important resource for people across Montana, which is why ratification of the negotiated Montana CSKT Water Compact is critical.

Contrary to what compact opponents are saying the negotiated CSKT Compact provides water right certainty, protects Montana’s water users, and ensures a reliable source of water. When the Flathead Reservation was established water rights were reserved through a federal treaty. The federally reserved water rights of the Tribe must, by law, be defined and quantified either through a negotiated agreement or through litigation in the Montana Water Court. The negotiated CSKT Water Compact defines the water rights and settles the legal claims of the CSKT, preventing long term costly litigation and uncertainty.

Recently, Compact opponents have proposed to replace the long-negotiated CSKT Water Compact that was developed through extensive public participation with a quickly crafted proposal that was developed without general public participation.  Their proposal ignores the fact that a negotiated settlement requires acceptance and approval by all parties.

The CSKT Water Compact, which was passed with bi-partisan support in the Montana State Legislature, after many years of negotiation, is currently awaiting Congressional ratification. The compact provides protection for all existing water rights, prevents decades of expensive litigation, and provides certainty to water users across our state. Comparatively, the proposal recently developed by those who oppose the CSKT Compact was constructed without Tribal, State, and Federal parties at the table and without general public comment. If this proposal were to upend the existing negotiated agreement it would most certainly open the floodgates to possibly decades of expensive litigation—putting the water rights of farmers, ranchers, and water users across our state, at risk.

We respectfully encourage our Congressional delegation to carefully consider the extensive benefits that implementing the long-negotiated Montana CSKT Water Compact will have for Montana’s agriculture industry and move Compact ratification forward, while soundly rejecting the proposal from Compact opponents that was quickly developed without Tribal, State, Federal, or general public participation.

Mike Murphy is the Executive Director of the Montana Water Resources Association.

John Youngberg is the Executive Director of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.

Jay Bodner is the Executive Vice President of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

Montana Stockgrowers Addresses Policy Focus and Priorities during Legislative Session

Errol RiceBy Errol Rice, MSGA Executive Vice President

Three overarching policy areas were paramount to Montana Stockgrowers during the 2015 Montana State Legislature – adequate funding for the Department of Livestock, passage of the CSKT Water Compact and the Sage Grouse Conservation Act. Each brought varying degrees of controversy and unwavering points of view by lawmakers and constituents, but we made the lift. There is still work to be done.

Fundamentally, there are three different approaches MSGA could have taken on these issues. We could have just simply reacted and waited to see if we’d be forced to respond to new and unanticipated policies. We could have only monitored and gleaned information to anticipate policy changes. We could have undergone direct participation in the process and shaped policy to minimize threats and advance opportunities. We chose direct participation in the process. This approach is the most costly in terms of resources, but the results in my opinion have yielded the greatest benefit to our industry.

The Department of Livestock budget came together after weeks of negotiations between livestock interests, House Appropriations and the Senate Finance committee. MSGA worked hard on the appropriations process. For months, leading up to the session we have been offering feedback and briefings to legislators on the tightening of costs and revenue projections, adjusting fees, recalibrating Board governance, human resource policies and procedures, and building a long-range plan. MSGA has also focused on vetting and making recommendations to the Bullock administration about appointments to Department’s Board.

The Governor’s nomination of Lila Taylor is a game changer. We supported and stewarded her candidacy through the process. Lila brings over forty years of industry experience along with a foundation in legislative appropriations and sharp understanding of how to serve on high-level boards.

She has served on the Board of Regents and the Montana Board of Public Education just to name a few. We also supported the confirmation of Nina Baucus and reappointment of Brett DeBruycker. Both of whom are stalwarts to the successful future of the DOL.

The CSKT water compact was a very complex policy matter that required intense due diligence by the water committee, Board of Directors, legal counsel and our lobbyists. We had to establish a high degree of confidence that the compact protected historic water rights both on and off the Flathead Reservation. Ratifying an agreement of this magnitude is of course going to draw a level of skepticism by some people.

There are almost no public policy decisions that enjoy unanimous support from all constituents, but as a matter of mitigating our industry’s risk exposure from tribal water claims, this compact needed passage. This proposal still has to go before the U.S. Congress for authorization and this could take years. After that, the CSKT’s tribal council must formally approve it. Following the tribe’s approval, the Montana Water Court must consider it.

In the meantime, the tribe must file their water rights by June 30th of this year. Those claims will be put on hold while Congress takes up the compact. MSGA will continue to be fully engaged at all levels of the compact’s life cycle moving forward.

Since April of 2013 MSGA has been working to develop a Montana solution for the conservation and management of sage grouse with the intent of avoiding a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listing of the bird under the Endangered Species Act. A listing by the USFWS would have a devastating impact to Montana’s livestock economy.

The passage of Senate Bill 261, solidified a mechanism for private landowners to maintain, restore and expand sage grouse habitat. Furthermore, it offers incentives for private landowners to participate as well as provide mitigation options for project developers such as coal, oil and natural gas to meet their regulatory obligations. MSGA has been at the forefront of getting Montana’s plan structured the right way for grazing interests.

Montana’s livestock industry is profoundly affected by public policy decisions. Anybody can be a part of this process but MSGA will continue to build from the bottom up to access key policy makers, providing credible technical information and influence. Political advocacy is not always easy and it is a competitive endeavor but we have to play to win.

I read a piece recently by Stanley McChrystal, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan and now advises CEOs on leadership. He said that political chiefs handling national security in Washington would benefit from a bit of white-water rafting together. That would build personal relationships that promote cooperation during times of crisis.  This is important from my point of view in that political advocacy is not always about making a statement but actually showing that we can develop meaningful relationships and lead on major issues affecting our industry.

Governor Steve Bullock Signs CSKT Water Compact Into Law

Senator Chas Vincent (R, Libby) speaks during the ceremony for signing of SB 262 at the Capitol on April 24. Image: Governor Steve Bullock

Senator Chas Vincent (R, Libby) speaks during the ceremony for signing of SB 262 at the Capitol on April 24.
Image: Governor Steve Bullock

Governor Steve Bullock today was joined by Sen. Chas Vincent and tribal leaders fromthe Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes as he signed the CSKT Water Compact into law. Once implemented, the Compact will honor tribal treaty rights, while protecting water access for farmers and ranchers both on and off the reservation, as well as avoiding the uncertainty that decades of litigation would cause. It is the final tribal water compact to be approved by the Montana Legislature.

“I am honored to sign the CSKT Water Compact into law. It is proof that when we put partisanship aside, work together and seek out solutions, we can tackle the biggest and most complex issues before us,” Bullock said. “This Compact will ensure that we’re living up to our treaty obligations while protecting the interests of Montana’s farmers, ranchers, and businesses.”

After the Legislature failed to approve the Compact during the 2013 legislative session, Bullock andthe Tribe agreed to reopen limited negotiations on issues related to irrigation use and instream flows on the Reservation, as well as incorporating recommendations from the Montana Water Policy Interim Committee. After a series of public hearings, Sen. Chas Vincent, who opposed the Compact in 2013 agreed to be the lead sponsor of the bill in the Montana legislature.

“Water is no doubt the most valuable resource in the Montana. This Compact will ensure that all Montanans continue to have access to reliable water sources, whether they live on reservation or off,” Vincent said. “I’m pleased that legislators from both sides of the aisle recognized not only the importance of passing this legislation, but also that this was a fair deal for all Montanans.”

Governor Steve Bullock signs SB 262 into law at the Capitol on April 24, 2015. The CSKT Compact must now go to Congress for approval. Image: Governor Steven Bullock

Governor Steve Bullock signs SB 262 into law at the Capitol on April 24, 2015. The CSKT Compact must now go to Congress for approval.
Image: Governor Steven Bullock

The Compact will make new water available for commercial and irrigation use, end the water administration void on the Flathead Reservation, allow for economic development under conditions of legal certainty on and off the Reservation, and facilitate the completion of the statewide general stream adjudication. In addition, the Compact would establish a technical team with irrigator representation to implement irrigation project upgrades to protect historic irrigation use and meet Tribal in-stream flow targets.

“This day will be remembered for years to come,” said CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley. “We have more discussions to sort out with Congress, but we can always say that many joined with us as the Montana Legislature did the right thing and supported the CSKT Water Compact. This is a historic day.”

In addition to Bullock and Vincent, the Compact received wide bipartisan support from farmers and ranchers, business groups, conservation organizations, and elected officials. The Compact now goes to Congress and the CSKT’s Council for final approval.

–Office of Governor Steve Bullock