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St. Ignatius man wages anti-compact ad campaign

by HAYDEN BLACKFORD
Daily Inter Lake | March 31, 2023 12:00 AM

For many, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' water compact with the State of Montana and the United States is a success story both politically and practically.

However, in late 2022, in the 11th hour of the compact’s final trajectory to completion, a new round of opposition swept through northwest Montana – leaving many to wonder what more there is to decide – isn’t the compact enacted?

Yes. In fact the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), the state entity that handles water rights alongside the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) on the Flathead Reservation, has a webpage that lays out a summary of the compact simply titled: The CSKT Water Compact has Been Enacted.

So why are there billboards dotting U.S Highway 93 that say “Something Big is Coming for Your Water?” Bill Sego, a former New Mexico state senator who owns property in St. Ignatius, recently spoke about the ad campaign, which he funds, and what he hopes to accomplish.

“Those billboards say stand by, good things are coming. I’m gonna help you keep your water,” Sego said.

In addition to the billboards, his employee, Catherine Vandermore, confirmed Sego had also paid for several statewide ad campaigns.

Sego runs a cattle and farming operation near St. Ignatius where he grows his own hay.

“We like the area. I like Montana,” Sego said.

He moved to the area from New Mexico but said his grandfather had helped build railroads in Montana and Wyoming.

“I had suspected I was getting in on some water problems, but I didn't dream that they would be as magnified as they are now,” Sego said.

In his time as a state senator in New Mexico, Sego said he saw water rights become an issue.

“I’ve never seen anything like I’ve seen with the taking of water by tribal nations,” Sego said.

In Sego’s mind, he purchased the property and had the water rights checked in detail.

“All of those same footsteps I’ve heard about in California, and I know about in New Mexico, I’m not gonna let them take my water,” Sego said.

It's still unclear, however, who or what is taking his water, since access to water on the Flathead Reservation has improved for many. Nearly 300 new wells have actually been permitted since the compact’s implementation, according to Ethan Mace, water engineer of the Flathead Reservation Water Management Board.

“This is important because all residents of the Flathead Reservation had been unable to secure a water use permit for a well since 1996 when the court froze the process until a compact could be completed,” said Robert McDonald, the Compact Implementation Officer for the CSKT.

McDonald also noted that the CSKT compact will actually improve irrigation systems already in place, so that there will be more water available downstream. The CSKT created the Division of Energy and Water Resources to carry out the provisions of the compact regarding improvements to the irrigation system.

The compact's history is complex enough that Bigfork author and physicist Edwin Berry wrote a book about it. He said that when compact negotiations began, it was probably the most disputed issue the Legislature had dealt with for some time.

“What’s the key question?” of the compact's purpose, Berry asked rhetorically. “It’s not, is it good for me? The question is: will Montana benefit best with the compact or without the compact?

Berry opposed the compact when it first came to the Legislature. After looking at people's arguments and past court precedents Berry said he changed his mind.

“I don’t try to make a judgment, I’m not a lawyer,” Berry said. “I try to review the facts.”

Contrary to what some may argue, there are already court decisions that have established what the Hellgate Treaty means, Berry said. Not to mention that not enacting the compact would have been very expensive for Montana, he added.

“As I’m saying this, it sounds like a Democrat. I’m a conservative Republican, so this is not a political bias I’m showing here," Berry said.

After he had gathered together legal arguments, non-legal arguments and did background research Berry wrote his book titled "Montana's Last Indian Water Compact." The book is currently online for free while he writes a second edition.

SHOULD PEOPLE be worried about losing their water though? It depends on how much you trust the tule of law, Berry said.

While he doesn't believe people need to be concerned about losing their water, "I think it is proper to have made the complaints,” he said of filing objections. “I think the way individuals may be harmed by the compact has to be (decided) at the individual level.”

Berry noted that nothing is perfect, but the compact as a whole is very important for Montana. The objection process is part of the road to a final resolution.

“I do not think in any way that leads to a rejection of the total compact, because then you would have millions, thousands of people harmed on the other side,” Berry said.

He did note that he found at least one objection that he thought may have some legal footing, and he wrote about it in chapter 10 of his book. He will cover the rest of the compact's life and sell his second rendition on Amazon.

“Individuals do have the right to complain," Berry said. "I would hope that the water court solves all of these individual things going on so that no one gets really hurt."

The Montana Water Court received objections to the compact until Feb. 9, like they have with other compacts between the state and outside entities many times before.

“I feel sorry for the judge in the water court, because he’s got 800 filed objections, and nobody expected that to happen,” Sego said.

In addition to filing his own objection to the CSKT water compact with the Montana Water Court, Sego funded an ad campaign in order to convince others to file objections. In his opinion, the compact was passed, but is unconstitutional.

Objections were filed by several city and local government entities, including the Green Mountain Water Users Association, the Hungry Horse County Water and Sewer District, Mission View Terrace HomeOwners Association, South Hills Landowners Association and even Lake County, according to Natalie Riffel, judicial assistant for the Montana Water Court.

Sego has hired Holland and Hart LLP, a law firm that he believes has some of the best water attorneys in the nation, and vows to pursue his issues with the water settlement to the Supreme Court, as he did in New Mexico in a case involving the line-item veto.

“I’m gonna do the things the water court asked me to do, but in the end, I’ll still have the option, which I will take, to do this like we did in New Mexico and run it up to the Supreme Court. I know this, the tribe does not want this compact to go to the Supreme Court,” Sego said. “You have no idea how committed I am and how many dollars I’m gonna spend to keep my water.”

The Water Court held an initial Case Management Conference via Zoom On March 22, limited to a discussion of procedural items. The conference was not a hearing on the merits of any objection, and representatives for each of the compacting parties – the Tribes, state and federal governments – were required to attend the conference. The date for the next step, called the Mediation Settlement Process, will be determined after last week's meeting.