Trump signs water rights bill into law, not everyone celebrates
After the Montana Water Rights Protection Act went to President Donald Trump’s desk on Sunday, Dec. 27, and was signed into law many celebrated, including state and tribal leaders, but not everyone joined the festivities.
Mission Irrigation District Commissioner Tim Orr was one of those not celebrating. Orr has served on the irrigation board for years and protested as the bill moved through the legislative process. He is also a farmer who relies on irrigation.
“For those who supported this compact, hope you are happy and can live with what we got,” he said.
He felt like the legislative process wasn’t properly followed: “History will tell how this compact was snuck through all phases of government.” He explained that he feels rules were changed to move the compact forward; for example, he said a two-thirds majority vote was needed for the water compact to pass the Montana Legislature in 2015 due to immunity provisions. The Montana Supreme Court ruled the provision didn’t create new immunity and a higher vote wasn’t needed.
Orr also said Senator Steve Daines refused to accept public comment on the issue during a Senate committee meeting this summer concerning the water compact. He also didn’t think the Water Rights bill should be attached to COVID-19 relief bill.
“The DC swamp survives,” he said. “The American citizen’s property rights and civil rights and the ability to make a living matters not to the elite officials in the state and federal swamp. Let the litigation begin.”
Orr said the Protection Act should have also allocated a portion of the $1.9 billion trust to CSKT tribal members as it was part of the package to settle water rights claims. The funding is being used to rehabilitate and modernize the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, including work in canals, pumping facilities, dam safety improvements, upgrades to water management and to reduce water loss from irrigation sources, as well as to restore damages to fish and wildlife habitats caused by the project.
Orr also takes issue with the transfer of ownership of water rights from irrigators of the FIIP to the United States in trust to CSKT. He said that the project was built for all irrigators, “homesteaders and tribal.” He said the Water Rights Protection Act “renders your fee patents as useless” and renders the irrigation districts as “powerless.”
Eighteen law makers across the state, including local Rep. Joe Read (R-Ronan), signed a letter stating that President Trump and Senator Daines “slipped the CSKT Water Compact” into law with the COVID-19 relief bill. The letter states: “This was a sad day for the people of Montana and showed blatant disregard for the will of the People.”
“We will continue this battle in court where we are confident the CSKT Water Compact will see defeat. Montanans want this issue to ultimately be resolved in Montana in accordance with existing state and federal law, and this is exactly what we had asked Senator Daines do, however, he proceeded unilaterally to hurt Montana when he acted as a member of the DC Swamp that voters rejected in 2016 and 2020.”