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Water Wacky

verdellState Senator Verdell Jackson (R – HD 5) has never been one to let facts stand in the way of good legislation. A couple of years ago, Verdell said, “he’s spent four years reading about climate change but hasn’t come across “an experiment using the scientific method” that demonstrates that carbon dioxide contributes to it.”

Now, Verdell has bewilderingly taken offense with the Reserved Water Rights Compact between the Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the State of Montana. For a dozen years, the CSKT, the State of Montana and Federal regulators have been working on an agreement to protect the rights of existing water rights holders and address water rights and adjudication on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Since 1996, water rights on the reservation have been tied up due to uncertainties in the existing law. Since that time, there has been no legal way to obtain water rights inside reservation boundaries. Through a series of grueling negotiations over many years, the Compact Commission has worked out a provisional agreement that is fair to all parties. At the last minute, Verdell wants to step in and extend the argument for several more years for no perceptible reason.

In an op-ed in the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake on Jan. 20, Jackson makes several claims that are based entirely on fiction.

To put it simply, this compact will likely make it impossible to obtain any new surface water rights and will restrict wells located close to surface water in Western Montana along with limiting many existing water rights of irrigators. New home sites and large building projects may not get a viable amount of water.

Put simply, this entire claim is bunk. The compact does not affect any water rights claims in Western Montana outside the boundaries of the Flathead Reservation. The Compact does not restrict anybody’s wells or surface water rights off the Reservation. On the Flathead Reservation, the Compact would establish a Water Management Board to administer water rights on the Reservation and end the roadblock for new claims that has existed since 1996. The claim that new building projects may not be able to get a “viable amount of water” is just flat-out wrong. In fact, the Compact provides more local control and avoids costly litigation. The Compact provides for additional water from Hungry Horse Reservoir that would be available to the Tribes to lease for future development both on and off the Reservation.

Jackson also claims that the Compact will “give senior water rights to all of Western Montana’s major lakes and rivers to the tribes.” Again, this is complete and utter hokum invented by the Senator. As part of the agreement, the Tribes get a shared interest in a few in-stream flow water rights in Western Montana that already exist and are currently administered by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The agreement establishes NO new surface water rights either on or off the Reservation.

Senator Jackson either doesn’t understand current law, or is trying to be willfully ignorant. Under current law, established by the Hellgate Treaty of 1855 and upheld by numerous courts, the Tribes hold water rights on nearly every stream in Western Montana. They have rarely exercised these rights because of the litigation it would entail, but the courts have consistently recognized that the rights exist. Under this compact, the Tribes are giving up nearly all of those existing rights off of the Reservation in exchange for a more stable system of water rights both for them and for the residents of Montana both on and off of the Reservation.

I’m not sure what agenda Senator Jackson thinks will be furthered by delaying or corrupting this good agreement. I can only speculate that since Jackson has been tied to ultra-right-wing groups like American Tradition Partnership and the American Legislative Exchange Council and likes to push knee-jerk crackpot bills like allowing legislators to carry guns in the Capitol, there is a game plan here that hasn’t yet come to light. The only constituency for this change this late is the game would be trial lawyers who would greatly profit from the resulting flurry of litigation while water-rights holders and water users in Western Montana would take it in the shorts and Montana taxpayers, once again, pony up to foot the bill for another of Verdell’s cockeyed schemes.

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