Governor to renegotiate Flathead water deal

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Gov. Steve Bullock plans to reopen limited negotiations for a water-rights compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

State officials said Tuesday they need to revisit a water-use agreement between the tribes and irrigation districts in western Montana. It would be incorporated into the larger compact and be presented to the 2015 Legislature.

Tribal leaders have agreed to reopen negotiations solely for that purpose.

A handful of lawsuits are pending in the dispute over who controls water flowing on or through the reservation and how much goes to farmers, ranchers and others through the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.

The Democratic governor said the water-use negotiations should be based on factors that motivated the initial negotiations, "namely that that irrigation deliveries will be protected and that water saved through upgrades and repairs to the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project will be allocated to Tribal instream flows."

The water-use agreement was an appendix to the water-rights compact, which the 2013 Legislature rejected. The group that negotiated the water-use agreement on behalf of three irrigation districts then disbanded, effectively invalidating it.

Four lawsuits over claims to the water have since been filed.

Talks will take place this summer. State officials said they plan to move fast so they can reach an agreement and give information to legislators well before the 2015 session.

About a dozen members of the public commented both for and against the governor's plan Tuesday during an interim legislative water policy committee meeting.

Phil Mitchell of Flathead County said the governor's letter inviting negotiations leaves too many unanswered questions.

"Please do this right for all parties," he said. "I don't think you're there yet."

The 2015 session is the final chance for lawmakers to approve the compact. If they fail, the tribes will have to assert their water rights by filing claims in a state stream adjudication court by June 30, 2015, the governor's letter said.

Salish and Kootenai attorney Rhonda Swaney said Tuesday that the tribes want to get the water-use agreement into the compact and that they prefer negotiation to court action.

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