Water Rights Act the right thing for Montana

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I recently read an article written by state Sen. Al Olszewski (Inter Lake, Jan. 12) on Sen. Daines’ CSKT water legislation – an article that was filled with inaccuracies. As someone who has been involved in this debate for years, I felt compelled to respond to the politically motivated, blatant falsehoods being thrown at Sen. Daines and the Montana Water Rights Protection Act (MWRPA).

Let me begin with Al’s favorite claim – that the MWRPA would take water rights away from 350,000 Western Montanans.

This is completely false.

The MWRPA protects the water rights of all Montanans. It requires the CSKT to permanently relinquish 97% of all water rights claims.

Let me say that again, the CSKT is giving up 97% of all their water rights claims – forever.

Furthermore, as the Trump Administration has explained in their numerous briefs on the matter, a significant number of CSKT’s claims are likely to be upheld in court, threatening the water rights of Montanans. And, thanks to Daines’ legislation, the Montana Water Court’s stay was recently extended for three years.

Which leads me to Al’s next ridiculous point, that Daines’ legislation has only made this controversy worse.

Al, what part of saving Montanans from years and years of court battles and costly lawyers has made this controversy worse?

Additionally, as someone who previously opposed the state passed compact and federal legislation, I am supportive of the MWRPA. I can attest to the fact that Daines has been in the middle of negotiations, and this proposal includes significant concessions from the CSKT, concessions that were significant enough for me to now back the proposal.

This legislation has bridged the gap for many people just like myself, folks who once opposed but now support this legislation because of Daines’ efforts and negotiations.

Al also claims that this legislation gives the CSKT $1.9 billion without any accountability or requirement to improve the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project (FIIP). Yet again, this is false.

Aside from all the progress this legislation requires for the FIIP, such as rehabilitation, modernization, and restoration of the project, this legislation also requires the $1.9 billion to be held in trust by the Department of the Interior. Before being able to withdraw a single dollar from the trust, the CSKT must submit a spending plan to DOI. No ifs, ands, or buts about it – that is accountability.

Next is the point that Daines’ legislation will devastate the sovereignty of the state of Montana, as well as our western counties. Once again, this is an entirely baseless claim. The MWRPA protects Montana’s sovereignty, by stating that all state water rights will remain managed by the state of Montana – reaffirming Article IX, Section 3 of the Montana Constitution. Furthermore, the MWRPA ensures that state or local jurisdiction will not be impacted.

Once again, without Daines’ legislation, Montanans will be fighting a long and costly court case that is likely to fail, similar to the recent case of the Klamath Tribes in Oregon. Again, the Trump Administration has stated, a significant number of CSKT’s claims would be upheld in court – and this legislation prevents that.

Al claims that under this proposal, the CSKT will receive 36,808 acres of land owned by the state, without any say from Montana’s Board of Land Commissioners.

Al, read the legislation. The state of Montana is not required to give up an acre of land. Any land swap would have to be negotiated and approved by the Land Board.

The list of inaccuracies in Al’s article goes on and on. And while I understand the desire to cling onto a single issue for political purposes, I do not understand the desire to smear a proposal that has brought together people all over this state, to put an end to a century-long debate.

I am proud to support the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, as I understand the need to settle this issue. I applaud Senator Daines for his leadership and working with all parties involved.

While Al thinks this issue is his ticket to statewide elected office, I strongly urge he does more research before throwing around baseless and unsubstantiated political attacks.

There is no denying this proposal is the right thing for Montana.

— Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, is chair of the House Natural Resources Committee.

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