U.S. Water News Online
MISSOULA, Mont. -- After 15 years of negotiations, state
and federal officials have signed an agreement to address federal
reserved water rights on national forest land in Montana.
"This is an important model that we hope other states will
embrace," said U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey. "People
will hold up Montana as a good example of how these disputes should
be resolved in the future."
The Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission and the
Forest Service began negotiations in 1992 concerning federal reserved
water rights on national forest lands in Montana. When negotiations
hit an impasse in 2005, a mediator helped put together the final
"We can all agree that there's nothing more important in the Rocky
Mountains than water," Gov. Brian Schweitzer told the group of about
30 who gathered for the signing ceremony. "It's also difficult to
know who actually owns that water."
The agreement, also signed by U.S. Assistant Attorney General Ryan
Nelson, proves that the federal government and states can put
together an agreement without litigation, Schweitzer said.
"I was a little worried that we folded like a cheap suit, but in
the end, we didn't," he said. "This resolution will protect our water
for future generations while making sure there are in-stream flows
for managing fisheries."
Federal reserved water rights are created when federal lands are
set aside for a specific purpose, such as national forests, national
parks, or fish and wildlife refuges.
While it was intended that enough water be reserved to meet the
purposes for which the federal lands were designated, those rights
still have to be negotiated with the state.
The compact was ratified by the 2007 Legislature. It establishes
water rights for ranger stations, work centers, tree nurseries, road
construction and firefighting. It also establishes "in-stream flow
rights" for 77 fish-inhabited streams that pass through the national
It also establishes procedures for the Forest Service to apply for
future in-stream flows and changes of use and gives the Forest
Service the right to object in the ongoing statewide adjudication.
Chris Tweeten, chairman of the Montana Reserved Water Rights
Compact Commission, said the agreement is a plus not only for
Montanans and the Forest Service, but also for the different groups
concerned about the future of Montana's water.
The compact protects the interests of Montana's agricultural
community, which depends on water for livelihood, as well as those
who live in Montana because of the recreational opportunities offered
by the state's clean and clear waters, Tweeten said.
The agreement also clears the way for the state to continue on
with the water rights adjudication process in as many as 40 different
water basins across the state, he said.
Federal reserved water rights have to be negotiated before that
process can be completed.
Not everyone is happy with the agreement.
Bruce Farling with Montana Trout Unlimited is disappointed that
in-stream flows on only 77 streams were protected under the compact.
"We think that all streams on national forest lands should have an
in-stream flow right," Farling said. "We think that should be the
The compact does provide a process for the agency to apply for
future in-stream flow rights on additional streams. Considering the
fact it took 15 years of negotiations to get to this point, Farling
worries about the amount of time that will pass before more streams
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