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Positive sign for Flathead water

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HELENA, Mont. - Efforts to establish an interim water management plan for the Flathead Indian Reservation have gained new ground with vows from Salish and Kootenai leaders and Gov. Judy Martz to get negotiations off dead center.

Such a plan would potentially create a joint tribal-state licensing program for some types of underground water use such as household wells and municipal services, but would likely not include any licensing for new uses of surface waters, according to sources close to the issue. All permitting across the reservation is currently on hold because of disagreements between the state and tribes over which entity should control what.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) has repeatedly tried to work around three separate orders from the Montana Supreme Court that prohibit the agency from issuing any new reservation water-use permits until tribal reserved water rights are quantified. The most recent high court ruling, which blasted the agency for ignoring past directives, was issued last December.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have been working with the federal government and the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission the past few years to establish the parameters for quantification of reservation water, but talks have stalled on a number of occasions, primarily over jurisdictional issues.

State officials first broached the idea of creating an interim management system to ensure that at least some new water development could take place, but the tribes initially balked at the proposal because of fears that long-range negotiations might be stalled.

Last year, however, tribal negotiators changed their stance and said they'd be willing to work on a temporary plan that could be put in place while broader, more complex issues were hammered out. But state officials then said they needed enabling legislation to allow an interim program to move forward. Tribal leaders recently requested a meeting with state officials to discuss the issue further and to knock down two draft bills from the Flathead Joint Board of Control (JBC), the reservation's main group of irrigators, which they say would throw a wrench into the process.

The draft legislation is the work of JBC attorney Jon Metropoulos, who used bill placeholders reserved by state Sen. Duane Grimes, R-Clancy, and Montana Senate President Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, to craft measures that would exempt the Flathead Reservation from the provisions of the 1973 Montana Water Use Act, dictate terms of any pending interim agreements, and allow local governments to be formal participants in future compact talks. Both Keenan and Grimes told tribal leaders that they didn't know the full details of what was being done with the bills.

"I'm getting to the point where I'm real frustrated with the process," Salish and Kootenai Chairman Fred Matt told Martz at the Feb. 6 gathering, which was attended by nearly 20 stakeholders. "Even in the interim process it seems like things are getting muddied up."

While tribal leaders added that they don't believe any enabling legislation is needed for the state to proceed, they reluctantly voiced their support for an authorization measure sponsored by state Sen. Bill Tash, R-Dillon.

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Matt said the bill is a "good piece of work" and "with a little tweaking" should serve the perceived needs of the state. He added that the tribes would rather keep negotiating over the contentious issues rather than fighting them out in court, which some DNRC officials have repeatedly recommended. Matt and others also asked that the JBC's draft bills be exterminated.

Polson Mayor Randy Ingram, Polson City Council member Mike Maddy, and Charlo representative Jan Niemeyer told the governor that they fully support the creation of an interim plan to help ensure their reservation communities can manage exploding residential growth and proceed with needed drinking water projects.

"I feel an interim agreement is vital, absolutely vital," Ingram explained.

"We need to have a vehicle to get this moving," Niemeyer added. Additional supporters include the Missoula County Association of Realtors, among other organizations.

Martz asked participants how long it would take to craft a short-term program and was told several weeks at a minimum.

"I hate to fast-track, but sometimes we have no choice," Matt said. "I think we're here to say we want to work toward solution."

Martz, however, said that she prefers to have a specific proposal for an interim plan on the table before her administration puts its weight behind Tash's bill. Without the legislation, state officials agreed that the process could be sidetracked until state lawmakers return to Helena in 2005.

"There's no doubt that this is the right way to go, and the governor thinks that, too," said Martz Chief Policy Adviser Tom Beck.

"We're willing to talk," said lead tribal water negotiator Clayton Matt. "We're ready. We've been ready."