The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes detailed their controversial water rights compact to a group in Helena today that included many state lawmakers.
The compact between the state, feds and the tribe, would cover almost all major Montana waterways west of the Continental Divide.
It includes rivers on the Flathead Reservation, between Missoula and Kalispell and outside the reservation in designated aboriginal hunting territories along the Kootenai, Upper Clark Fork, Swan, Blackfoot, and Bitterroot rivers, all the way north to Lincoln County.
State lawmakers and representatives from the governor's and attorney general's offices learned the details of the proposed Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact at a meeting put on by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
"There's a ton of history there," said tribe attorney John Carter. "And there's a ton of legal history there."
Carter said that an 1855 treaty ensures their water rights.
"They either get a compact through the legislature this coming session, or they are forced as a matter of state law to file all of their water rights claims both on and off the reservation," he said.
Carter said if the compact doesn't pass, the legal battle could last decades and cost millions of dollars.
"Every single claimant, whether they're on the Madison River or Flathead Reservation, they'd have to lawyer up," Carter said.
Carter said the point of the compact is to specify how much water the tribe is entitled to for agricultural, domestic and commercial uses.
Some water rights holders worry that if the compact is approved, irrigators will have to give up their property and water rights.
"This water that we are talking about was appropriated to our land...that our forefathers received when they bought land on the reservation," said Flathead irrigator Tim Orr.
Orr said if the compact is passed it could send land values plummeting and jeopardize thousands of farms.
"Some of this land was selling for $6,000 or $7,000 an acre," he said. "And without an adequate supply of water, you can cut that a third or maybe more."
Irrigators are concerned the compact gives the tribe too much water and limits irrigators' legal rights.
Orr said the tribal chairman and Montana governor have sent letters talking about sitting down to improve the compact, and the recently reorganized Flathead Joint Board of Control said it wants to be a part of it.
"We want to be down at that table too," said Orr. "We want to talk too."
The water rights compact will go before the state legislature in the 2015 session.