Water compact squeezes into congressional spending package

A century-long debate over water rights in the state is nearing an end, providing certainty for farmers and ranchers in southwest Montana.

The Montana Water Rights Protection Act passed the U.S. Congress this week as part of a major coronavirus relief and year-end appropriations package.

It next needs President Donald Trump’s signature, which isn’t yet certain because he objected Tuesday to some of the package. It may have to return to Congress for revisions and another vote.

Once the act becomes law, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will ratify it.

The tribes will then relinquish thousands of water rights across the state, including in southwest Montana.

Tribal Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant called the bill “truly historic and important” in a news release.

Without the act, more than 10,000 tribal claims for water rights could end up in court, a costly proposition that could result in limitations on irrigation in much of the state, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“If the compact had been rejected, it would have given the tribes the ability to file on all these water rights,” said state Rep. Zach Brown, a Bozeman Democrat who chaired the Water Policy Interim Committee. “Our irrigators in Gallatin County, including the city of Bozeman and all the generational farmers and ranchers, would have had to defend their water rights in court.”

“Like any good negotiation, both sides gave up a lot of ground to meet in the middle and find a solution that works for everyone,” Brown said. “It provides certainty for water rights holders because they won’t be subject to litigation from time immemorial water rights from the tribes.”

The bipartisan bill has been years in the making.

It narrowly passed the Montana Legislature in 2015 and was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.