Rep. Verdell Jackson
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Water rights and irrigation are essential to farming and ranching. The following articles deal with securing water rights.

Water Rights are at Risk

By Verdell Jackson, House District 79

Those of you who have tried to change your water rights by increasing the flow or adding irrigation acreage found that there is a two-year moratorium in effect on new water rights. Also, contractors were affected who needed water for such projects as highway construction or dust abatement last summer. Senate Bill 486 signed into law on April 6, 1999 implemented the two-year moratorium on applications for new irrigation rights in the Clark Fork River Basin. Water wells are not included in this moratorium. The Flathead River and tributaries are a big part of the Clark Fork River Basin, supplying 59% of the water that flows to the Avista hydroelectric project. This moratorium affects 7,400 water users and ends February 28, 2001.

The impetus for the moratorium was an agreement being developed between the State of Montana and Avista Corporation. Avistas hydroelectric project located at the Noxon Rapids Dam has a 1951 water right for 50,000 cubic feet of water per second. The purpose of the agreement was to protect existing water users. Since Avista has a water right with a date of 1951, they could stop all water users who obtained their rights after that time (about 3000 users). Although Avista has never insisted that junior water users (water rights issued after 1951) stop using water during low flows, state officials have been negotiating an agreement with Avista to lessen the future risk of such action. This agreement was to be part of the license renewal of Avista through the Federal Government, but the license was renewed without consideration of the agreement. This dilemma stopped the two-year process.

I am sponsoring House Bill 397 (Clark Fork Basin Water Management Plan) to continue the process. This Bill provides for a task force made up of water users and representatives designed to include representatives from all communities, interest groups, and other people interested in or affected this issue. The task force will develop a water management plan to protect existing water users and to provide for orderly development of water to meet future needs. It is my hope that the consensus process and the water management plan will prevent a basin closure as well as a call on junior water users during dry periods.

The task force will conduct scoping meetings throughout the Basin prior to the development of a draft water management plan. The task force shall use a collaborative, public process to prepare the water management plan.

The water management plan must identify options: to protect existing water uses and water supplies to meet current needs, including hydropower generation; to provide water for future needs; to provide for the orderly development of water; and to provide for the uniform enforcement of water rights in the Basin.

The task force shall submit an interim report on its activities to the governor and legislature by December 31, 2002. The water management plan, including information prepared by the task force, shall be submitted to the 59th legislature (December 31, 2004).

The Montana Consensus Council, Office of the Governor, has accepted responsibility for the process and the plan. The Council helps citizens and officials build agreement and resolve disputes on natural resource and other public policy issues. The Council is impartial; it does not advocate for any particular interest or outcome. As a resource for the legislative and executive branches, other public officials, citizens, interest groups, and communities, the council helps diverse groups come together in a constructive forum, with good information, to seek effective solutions that accommodate as many interests as possible. In the 7 years since inception, the Council has facilitated 29 consensus-building and public involvement projects.


House Bill 397, my bill, passed in the legislative session ended the two-year moritorium on new irrigations rights in the Clark Fork River Basin. This bill provides a window of opportunity for applying for new irrigation rights or modifying existing rights. Eventually some type of closure will most likely take place to prevent additional land from being irrigated. The planning results of House Bill 397 will help to determine what type of closure, if any, takes place. The main goal of the Bill is to promote water conservation and protect the existing and future water users. It may be necessary to forego some future uses in order to protect existing use.

Another future impact on irrigation rights will be the settlement with the Salish & Kootney tribe on their water allocation through the Water Compact Commission. The initial position of the tribe is that they should control all of the water in the Clark Fork River Basin because of the Hellgate Treaty and the abrigional rights. The final agreement must be approved by the State Legislature and the Federal Government. The purpose of the Montana Compact Commission is to reach an agreement without going to court which will protect existing water users and give the tribe a fair allocation. These agreements take years to negotiate, but the outcome can dramatically affect the future applications for new water rights.