The Montana House held a rare all-day Saturday session to give hundreds of proponents and opponents of the CSKT Water Rights Compact an opportunity for their views to be heard.

The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Republican Gerald Bennett sat patiently and listened for nearly eight hours of testimony on SB 262, introduced by State Senator Chas Vincent.

One proponent, CSKT Elder Patrick Pierre, spoke about how many years the tribe and its members have been working on the compact, and how much the tribes have given up to reach a compromise that all parties could live with.

"There's not going to be any changes in producing water for irrigation and whatever else they need water for," Pierre said. "There's not going to be any reduction, in fact, it's going to be just the opposite. What they have today they'll still have tomorrow and in the days to come."

Chief Legal Counsel for the Governor's Office, Andrew Huff said negotiations over the past two years have been hard for both sides of the issue.

"Those were tough negotiations, but I think we owe a debt of gratitude to all the people involved," Huff said. "To the tribal negotiators and the tribal council, to the State negotiators in the form of the compact commission and compact staff, and to the federal negotiators for their professionalism, their patience, their courtesy and most of all, their expertise."

For the opposition, speakers included Tim Orr, an irrigator from St. Ignatius, who is convinced that the compact will deprive his agricultural operation of water, and put him out of business.

"The average requirement for alfalfa for this area is 26 to 29 inches of irrigation water on the average year," Orr said. "The CSKT compact gives us in the Mission area 12 inches of water."

Author and Native American activist Elaine Willman testified that, in her view, the compact would enable the tribes to not only withhold water from irrigators, but would enable them to sell it to the highest bidder.

"A law journal called 'As Long as the Water Flows' was published by the University of New Mexico," Willman said. "Her message to the tribes, 566 of them, was 'capture all the water you can. Water is a real rare commodity in the United States, so capture all the water you can and sell it as a part of your tribal economic development'."

Spokespersons on both side of the issue claim that should their side not prevail, hundreds of water and irrigation cases will go to court, tying up water rights for decades and ending up before the U.S. Supreme Court.


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