U.S. Water News Online
BILLINGS, Mont. -- Gov. Brian Schweitzer has rejected a
proposed water quality agreement with Wyoming, saying it failed to
protect Montana's farmers and fisheries and could have curtailed
future energy development in the state.
The collapsed agreement -- hashed out during months of
negotiations -- had called for tighter standards on some water
discharged by the coal-bed methane industry. It would have covered
the Tongue River, which passes from Wyoming into Montana, but
excluded two of its main tributaries.
Schweitzer said that was equivalent to a homeowner putting a
double lock on the front door but leaving the back door and windows
Billions of gallons of water from aquifers are discharged during
coal-bed methane production. The discharged water is typically high
in sodium and other salts, which can ruin crops and soils and harm
"This would be a backdoor way of delivering sodium to Montana,"
Schweitzer said of the exclusion of the two tributaries, Hanging
Woman and Badger creeks. "Effectively it all ends up in the same
place: It ends up on the fields of Montana farmers and it ends up in
the Tongue River."
The decision sends the dispute between the states back to U.S.
District Court in Wyoming. That leaves Montana exposed to the
possibility the court could impose weaker water quality rules than
the ones rejected.
"We'll take our chances," Schweitzer said.
Wyoming Gov. David Freudenthal said in a statement that he was not
notified of the decision and heard about it only through a reporter.
Freudenthal said negotiations over the tributaries had been ongoing,
and that Wyoming was "awaiting further discussions" when Schweitzer's
"Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality was awaiting a
response from its Montana counterpart on the language to deal with
the two tributaries," he said. "I guess we have our answer. Under no
circumstances does Governor Schweitzer view it to his political
advantage to work with us. So, we'll continue in court."
Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg had no immediate comment.
He said he was still reviewing the implications of Schweitzer's
While some Montana landowners applauded Schweitzer's move, a
spokesman for Marathon Oil said the company was "disappointed" the
states could not agree.
"We would like to make plans (for future development), and it's
hard to make plans without knowing what the rules would look like,"
said Marathon's Scott Scheffler.
Northern Wyoming, where the Tongue River originates, has
experienced intense coal-bed methane development over the past
decade, with more than 20,000 wells drilled.
Fearful of the effects on downstream farmers, Montana in 2006
attempted to impose new limits on coal-bed methane water entering the
Tongue and its tributaries. However, before the state's standards
could be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
several companies sued in federal court to block their adoption.
Wyoming later joined the suit on the side of the companies.
Montana joined on the side of the EPA.
The case remains before U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer in
Cheyenne. The two sides had long-since missed Brimmer's Nov. 30
deadline to reach an agreement. But he has not yet scheduled hearings
in the case, so a resumption of negotiations is still possible.
Schweitzer said he was open to more discussions but that none were
Conservation groups and ranchers who depend on the Tongue for
irrigation had pushed the governor to reject the agreement.
Roger Muggli, a Miles City farmer and manager of the Tongue and
Yellowstone Irrigation District, said Schweitzer's decision was a
"gutsy move" in the face of alleged pressure from the industry to
accept the deal.
"They need to figure out how to develop (coal-bed methane) and put
the water back" into the ground, he said. "We don't need all that
water in the creeks and rivers."
Muggli last year claimed some of his fields near Miles City
already were suffering the effects of coal-bed methane water.
But energy producers and an industry scientist contended there was
no clear evidence methane production was causing any problems. They
have argued the standards could unnecessarily slow coal-bed methane
production in Wyoming.
Another possibility, according to Schweitzer, was that Wyoming
production would push waterways past their capacity to absorb sodium,
closing the door on future energy development in Montana.
The rejection came on the heels of a significant development in
another, related water fight between the two states, over the Tongue
and Powder rivers.
The Solicitor General Paul Clement has recommended the U.S.
Supreme Court take up a case in which Montana alleges Wyoming has
depleted the two rivers, through excessive irrigation and coal-bed
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