MISSION VALLEY — The future of water management in the Flathead Basin will pass a major milestone this week after years of work, and more than a decade of intense negotiations.
Approval of the Flathead Water Compact — formally known as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes- Montana Compact — last fall marked the resolution of a question that first circulated nearly 30-years ago, namely water rights on the Flathead Reservation.
And more specifically, whether the federal government had lived up to the rights of the 1855 Hellgate Treaty. That treaty contained assurances the tribes would have certain rights preserved, and especially when it came to fisheries.
When negotiations began in earnest more than a decade ago it was apparent there were lots of details to be addressed. Not only water rights and fisheries, but the management of water in the Flathead Basin, and badly-needed improvements to what is known as the "Flathead Indian Irrigation Project."
Those discussions brought tribal, state and federal leaders together to iron out differences, but also sparked sharp concerns from Mission Valley residents, especially those with farms and ranches depending on irrigation.
Finally, the State of Montana and CSKT leaders were able to reach an agreement on a Compact. But it took several more years — and an additional push in Congress — to get the federal agreement ratified.
That happened last October, and since then work has been underway to organize the actions to come in the decades ahead.
Thursday, a major milestone will be passed with the first meeting of the Flathead Water Management Board, the group that will oversee all water administration management decisions in the years to come. The five-member board includes two directors appointed by the governor, two from the Tribal Council, and a fifth selected by the other members.
The Secretary of the Interior could also appoint a sixth, non-voting member.
When the Board meets for the first time Thursday afternoon in Ronan, it will largely be an organizational meeting, but also a preview for the Board's work, which will issue new water rights, changes to existing and future rights, and the enforcement of water rights in the Flathead Basin.