Montana Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a bill aimed at re-negotiating a draft water rights compact between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and the state and federal governments.
“Senate Bill 265 serves no useful purpose and needlessly delays the Montana General Stream Adjudication to the detriment of tens of thousands of Montana water users,” Bullock said in his May 3 veto letter.
SB 265 had called for extending adjudication of Indian and federal water rights from July 1, 2013, to July 1, 2015. It also required the Montana Legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee to conduct meetings on the proposed CSKT water compact, prepare a study of issues related to the compact, create new legislation with regard to the compact, and make recommendations for the next legislative session.
Bullock, however, said the legislative committee is not needed because the Legislature created the Montana Reserved Water Rights Commission in 1979 “for the express purpose of negotiating quantification agreements for tribal and federal claims to water” in Montana. Furthermore, Bullock noted, the commission had successfully negotiated 18 federal and tribal water compacts, including two that the Legislature adopted this year.
“Unfortunately, SB 265 comes to my desk because the Legislature has failed — for the first time in the 34-year history of the Commission — to adopt a state-tribal compact negotiated in good faith,” Bullock said. “The proposed water compact with CSKT is the culmination of years of negotiation, legal and technical work, and public involvement.”
Bullock called the proposed CSKT water compact “a reasonable settlement” in which both sides had made concessions. And because of the 1855 Hellgate Treaty, CSKT are the only Indian tribes in Montana with aboriginal water rights protected under federal law that could theoretically lay claim to in-stream water across the entire state.
The CSKT water compact “provides necessary protections for all affected water users in Montana, including those in eastern Montana,” Bullock said.
The governor also noted that while it was made clear during the legislative session “there is no reason to believe CSKT would agree to reopen negotiations,” CSKT and the state can do so without SB 265. The tribes have until July 1, 2015,, after the conclusion of the next legislative session, to file their water claims, Bullock said, so the deadline extension in SB 265 is unnecessary.
By not approving the water compact this year, however, the Legislature is delaying the adjudication of water claims across the state, Bullock said. He cited Water Court Chief Judge Bruce Loble’s testimony that resolution of federal and tribal water claims was “critical” to moving the statewide process forward.
“CSKT’s rights are the last set of tribal claims that need to be quantified,” Bullock said, and if they’re not settled by negotiation, they must be litigated. He noted that CSKT estimates up to 10,000 claims could be filed inside and outside the Flathead Indian Reservation, which could prevent the state from reaching its goal of having all preliminary water rights decrees in place by 2020.
With SB 265 vetoed, Bullock called on the Montana Reserved Water Rights Commission to work with other agencies and affected or interested parties to prepare a comprehensive report addressing all issues raised by the 2013 Legislature. He also directed the commission to submit the report to the Legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee well before the next legislative session.