Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission

Without water, we perish. For 30 years, the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes and the state of Montana have disagreed about tribal water right claims. But this year the legislature approved a comprehensive water rights agreement. Melissa Hornbein was one of the lead attorneys in the negotiations, working for Montana DNRC and the Montana Reserved Water Rights Commission. Hornbein talks with Brian Kahn about the legal and emotional challenges of negotiating the Flathead water compact.

Katrin Frye

While water rights lawsuits bop around state and federal courthouses there is technically no legal method of drilling a well on the Flathead Reservation, and hasn’t been since 1996. However, new wells and water uses have been allowed on the reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes since. Tribal Spokesman Robert McDonald said they didn’t want to halt progress or development, however, he says there isn’t a legally valid way to dig a new well. There’s no governing structure in place so no change of use permits or new well permits.

Flickr, Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ

More are calling for a re-opening of negotiations on the Flathead Water Compact, soon possibly including the state commission which helped craft the compact.

But the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes are holding firm with the current version.

The CSKT have been working on this agreement with the state and federal governments and private irrigators for at least a dozen years. It would settle disputes over how water is shared on the Flathead reservation.