The proposed settlement would cover waterways on the Flathead Reservation and those in designated aboriginal hunting territories off the reservation including the Kootenai, Upper Clark fork, Swan, Blackfoot and Bitterroot Rivers and areas in Lincoln County.
Right now, water disputes are settled in costly court battles. Irrigators say the federal government established their rights in homestead acts and those rights are assured by state law, but state negotiators say an 1855 treaty gives the Salish and Kootenai Tribes strong legal standing to preserve in-stream flows for fisheries.
State negotiators say the proposed settlement assures all users they will continue to receive the current amounts of water they are using, but several property owners say it does not, that that the settlement will force many Montana farms and ranches out of business and forever diminish our region's way of life.
The view from the Mission Mountains is breathtaking, but many longtime farming families are convinced corn, potatoes, cattle, hay and other crops are close to dying off in this landscape.
St. Ignatius area rancher Skip Biggs tells NBC Montana, "You won't be able to farm and ranch. You won't be able to have the commerce that's been here.
Irrigators I spoke with believe thousands of family farms across 11 Montana counties will go out of business if state and federal lawmakers approve a settlement that will quantify Salish and Kootenai water rights.
Jerry Laskody says "it's not only going to put me out of business but a lot of other people out of business, too."
Biggs adds, "You're not going to see a beautiful farm valley."
However, the Chairman of the Water Rights Compact Commission says the proposal ties loopholes, sets specific amounts of water each user is entitled to, while also honoring tribal water rights established in the Hellgate Treaty of 1855.
Chris Tweeten states, "We are finally to a point where we think we have a product that's fair to everybody, that treats everybody fairly but provides water rights for the tribe, that protects the water rights that exist under state law that are currently being exercised. It provides a management system that will be workable and nimble enough to respond to disputes when they occur and provides for future development of water."
St. Ignatius irrigator Jerry Laskody is sure the commission is using faulty engineering models and does not have the correct measurements of water that individual irrigators use. Laskody says, "...and without those measurements, there's nobody that's going to believe that this amount of water that this particular compact allocates us is a valid amount and that will put not only me out of business, but it will put a lot of people out of business."
Compact commissioners disagree and say they have reworked the proposal for a decade to address concerns like these. Tweeten says, "Existing water rights are going to be protected. There have been extensive discussions between the tribes and the irrigation district that make up the joint board. They will have a water use agreement between the tribes and the irrigation district managers that will dictate or ensure the delivery of water to the irrigation district users under the compact, so they will continue to have water they need to irrigate."
The current state budget proposal outlines 55 million dollars of state money to manage the water settlement.
The commission says the treaty also gives the tribes strong legal bases to assert their water rights off the reservation in aboriginal hunting territories as well. "We believe we've made sure the off reservation component will exist for the benefit of the tribe while not threatening existing uses under state law." adds Tweeten.
Several irrigators in the Bitterroot Valley tell me they believe the settlement will not affect their water use. Paul Barteni manages Daly Ditches in Hamilton and tells NBC Montana, "As far as I understand in the wording of the compact, it shouldn't change any of the plans that we normally operate."
However, some farmers and ranchers on the Flathead Indian Reservation insist the settlement will cripple irrigators and send property values plummeting. According to Biggs, "A way of life that we grew up with is not going to be here in a few years if this compact passes."
If lawmakers approve the settlement, Laskody and Biggs tell me they and many other farmers and ranchers will move their operations out of the region.
The Missoula City and County Environmental Health Supervisor supports the settlement.
Peter Nielsen agrees with state negotiators who say the agreement is preferred over prolonged and uncertain litigation.
Nielsen also says Missoula depends on the Clark Fork River and the proposal would help protect it.
Nielsen tells NBC Montana, "This community has made a tremendous investment in the asset of this river. It's important to this community to maintain flows in the Clark Fork River. This agreement helps us do that and it helps us to do that in a way that also protects the interest of water users upstream, junior water users who's water frights might be affected by this agreement. There's a great de3al of flexibility in this agreement for folks to be able to work on long-term drought planning and voluntary solutions to keeping water in the river, rather than having the hammer come down on them immediately with water rights calls."
If the Montana legislature and the US Congress don't approve the settlement by next summer, water disputes will remain in the court system. The commission meets on December 19th to finalize the proposal.
12 public comment meetings are scheduled before December 19th.
Here is the schedule of meetings:
LIBBY- Monday November 26, 2012 Time: 7:00 pm. Location: City of Libby - Ponderosa Meeting Room, 952 East Spruce Street, Libby, MT
BIGFORK - Tuesday November 27, 2012 Time: 1:00 pm. Location: Bethany Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall (Basement), 8559 MT HWY 35, Bigfork, MT
KALISPELL - Tuesday November 27, 2012 Time: 7:00 pm. Location: Outlaw Inn Hotel Winchester Room, 1701 US HWY 93 South, Kalispell, MT
POLSON - Wednesday November 28, 2012 Time: 9:00 am. Kwa TaqNuk Resort, 49708 US HWY 93 East, Polson, MT
HOT SPRINGS - Wednesday November 28, 2012 Time: 3:00 pm. Salish Senior Center, 214 N. Spring Street, Hot Springs, MT
THOMPSON FALLS - Wednesday November 28, 2012 Time: 7:30 pm. Thompson Falls High School Band Room, 601 Golf Street, Thompson Falls, MT
ARLEE - Thursday November 29, 2012 Time: 10:00 am. Arlee Senior Center, 106 Wessinger Street, Arlee, MT
HAMILTON - Thursday November 29, 2012 Time: 3:00 pm. Ravalli County Administrative Center, Third Floor Conference Room, 215 South 4th Street, Hamilton, MT
MISSOULA - Thursday November 29, 2012 Time: 7:30 pm. Double Tree Edgewater, Blackfoot Room, 100 Madison, Missoula, MT
DEER LODGE - Tuesday December 4, 2012 Time: 9:00 am. Powell County Community Center, 416 Cottonwood Avenue, Deer Lodge, MT
PHILIPSBURG - Tuesday December 4, 2012 Time: 2:00 pm. Granite County Museum, 135 N. Sansome Street, Phillipsburg, MT
OVANDO - Tuesday December 4, 2012 Time: 7:30 pm. Ovando School Gym, 108 Birch Street, Ovando, MT