by Clarice Ryan
For over a decade the federal government, with input from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, has been working with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to develop a reserved water rights compact basically giving the tribes too much control, in my opinion, over water west of the Continental Divide. This proposed water rights compact is now being introduced through a series of 13 public information meetings prior to its submission for vote by the state legislators in the upcoming legislative session. This leaves little remaining time for the public to review and comment on the extensive proposal. Buried within it are details for future control over uses and water allowances on and off reservation, both residential and commercial. Current landowner-reserved water rights could change.
The amount of water to be contained and maintained in streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs needs clarification and commitment. This is particularly critical for those with waterfront properties and boat docks likely threatened by lowered water levels. Heavy water users, such as golf courses and farmers requiring irrigation, seek assurance that their needs will be based upon historical water use. Standardized allowances for all current reservation irrigators are already being contested. Inadequate available water could drive operators out of business with land values and land salability destroyed.
The great Northwest has been proud of its inexpensive hydropower made possible by the abundant watersheds from our mountains, feeding reservoirs behind the dams. We even wonder if the dams themselves will be allowed to remain secure. Stored water protecting against droughts also provide recreation, fishing and boating. Where will these revenues go as well as returns on power generation and excess water? People must seek answers to many questions at these information meetings. Equally essential is our communication with our elected officials expressing our concerns over water and its impacts on our lives and livelihoods. We must watch for public meeting announcements, attend and speak out.