The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are one of the last reservations in Montana to draw up a water compact to officially define its water rights.

Ulitmately, it must be OK’d by the Montana legislature. The compact has been drafted and is up for public review now, a process that has so far shown that many aren’t happy with the compact draft.

Missoulian reporter Vince Devlin reports on what worries that residents are raising:

    ST. IGNATIUS – You don’t have to go far to find people who aren’t happy with – and some who flat out oppose – the proposed water compact between Montana, the United States and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that’s up for public review right now.

    Many are people who grow and raise your food.

    A lot of Mission Valley farmers and ranchers fear the water they’ll be allotted if the compact goes through will cripple their operations.

    Some say it will do worse than that.

    “The end is near, no doubt about it,” says Harley Hettick of Dixon, who has grown melons for nearly a quarter of a century on his farm on the Flathead Reservation. “Dixon Melons is just about history.”

    “You’re hanging us out to dry,” rancher Jerry Laskody says.


“If this goes through the way it is, I won’t be able to farm another year,” says Steve Tobol of Ronan.

They’re all speaking at the Flathead Joint Board of Control, an elected body of irrigators. At a packed meeting where the crowd spilled out of the room earlier this month, almost every speaker rose to oppose the compact, with some charging that the board has sold them down the river.

“This whole thing flies in the face of reason,” Laskody told them. “We should not be arguing with you, you should be arguing for us.”

***

The proposed compact, currently up for public review, is the result of decades of work, including monthly negotiations that have gone on for years.

The stakes are huge. Minus a compact, the fight over water rights – not just on the reservation, but across western Montana – could turn into an expensive and lengthy free-for-all in the court system.

But with the compact as proposed, some irrigators believe that may be the lesser of two evils, at least for them.

Dick Erb of Moiese charges that the water use draft agreement reached between the joint board and the tribes fails to do what has been accomplished elsewhere in the water compact: Protect existing uses.

“If adopted, the draft agreement would put many farm and ranch families – tribal and non-tribal – out of business,” Erb has written, “because irrigation water delivered in the future would be significantly below what they had expected and relied on in the past.”

Hettick says he employs a “state-of-the-art” and efficient drip irrigation system to grow his melons.

But when he asked Josh Carter, an agricultural consultant for a large seed company, about the 1.4 acre feet of water he’d have access to the way things are proposed, “Josh’s initial advice shocked me,” Hettick says.

Carter told Hettick to move someplace else if he wanted to continue growing melons. A melon crop, Hettick says he was told, requires more than twice that amount of water.

“If we were to grow Dixon Melons on the maximum amount of water that the Water Commission insists is adequate, we would have vines with, at best, deformed, half-grown watermelon, honeydew, and cantaloupe,” Hettick wrote in a letter he submitted to the joint board. “In other words, it would not be possible.”

***

Tobol, who grows potatoes in sandy soil, says he needs more than the 1.4 acre feet of water as well to keep operating, and he’s not alone.

Tobol is chairman of a group formed this summer, the Western Montana Water Users Association, which is fighting the proposed water use agreement and water compact as they now stand.

They already have more than 100 irrigators on board, Tobol says.

Chris Sullivan, one of them, tells the joint board midway through the meeting he has been circulating a sheet asking attendees to sign and indicate whether they are for or against the proposals as they stand.

“A lot won’t sign for fear of retribution on their leases,” Sullivan says, “but of the 24 who have signed, 23 are against the proposals.”

Later, he updates the totals. Forty-one irrigators have signed, and it’s one for, two uncommitted and 38 against.

“Overwhelmingly, your neighbors and friends will not vote for this agreement,” retired Ronan attorney Lloyd Ingraham tells the joint board.

***

“We’re all farmers and irrigators, too,” Walt Shock, chairman of the Flathead Joint Board of Control – who declined comment after the meeting – tells the crowd. “We’re in the same boat you are. We’re trying to do the best we can to avoid litigation.”

One irrigator goes against the grain, and argues that failure to reach an agreement will send all irrigators over their own personal “fiscal cliff” if everyone has to lawyer up and take their water rights fights to court.

“Get the best agreement possible, but get an agreement,” he says.

No one wants to go to litigation, most of the farmers and ranchers agree, but many feel backed into a corner by the terms of the compact, and sideswiped by the methods that determined how much water they’ll get.

“In my 35 years as an engineer, I have never seen anyone accept analytic model data as valid without empirical measurements to validate the model results,” Laskody says.

Things can get very technical and complex pretty quickly in such discussions, and veer into unrelated territory, too. When one woman announces she has been taping the meeting, a debate ensues between Jon Metropoulos, an attorney who represents the joint board and says doing so without everyone’s prior knowledge is illegal, and John Swenson of Ronan, who argues it is perfectly legal to record a public meeting.

They don’t resolve that any more than they make much ground on the reason they’re all here.

It’s all about water.

“Given soil conditions and very low rainfall in many areas of the Mission Valley, it would be impossible for a large number of relatively small family farms to continue to grow hay, corn, wheat, potatoes, fruits and a wide range of vegetables,” Erb says.

Hettick says he’s dealt with a lot of obstacles during his 24 years farming.

“Our business has survived grasshopper onslaught, early and late frosts, hail, thieves and alfalfa beetles,” he says, “but never have we been deprived of a consistent source of good irrigation water.”

Meetings to take public comment on the proposed compact begin Monday in Libby.

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