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Compact secures water rights

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Hopefully, the state legislature will approve the water rights compact agreement this session. I also hope that farmers and ranchers will support the related water use agreement. I raise hay on a 240-acre farm that is dependent on irrigation water. I publicly opposed the May 2012 version of the WUA, but for a number of reasons, I support the re-negotiated WUA released in late January.

I am confident that the terms of the WUA contract would give my farm, along with others, legally secure access to water under a tribal water right with an 1855 priority date. I respect the judgment of property owners who want a water right that is appurtenant to their property. But seeking a direct water right in the Montana Water Court would involve legal fees, and more importantly, the outcome would be uncertain. Even if granted a state water right, a property would have a later priority date and thus be subject to a call during short water years. 

The January 2013 version of the WUA provides more water for the project as a whole and includes provisions that give me reasonable assurance that my farm, among others, will continue to receive water deliveries consistent with historical flows. Under the WUA, in-stream flow increases would be phased in as more water is made available to the project. If the WUA is rejected, I believe the tribes would seek to achieve their in-stream flow objectives up front. Irrigators would have to wait for major project improvements.

Rejection of the WUA would result in much higher annual operating and maintenance fees. Without the net power revenues and the low-cost block of power provided under the WUA, O&M costs would be at least $4 an acre higher. Without the potential state funding provisions in the WUA, O&M fees will need to be increased to cover any additional pumping costs on the Flathead River.

Rejection of the WUA also would mean a loss of state and federal funds to support much-needed rehabilitation and betterment projects. I believe that the Project would need to impose, at a minimum, a $10 per acre R&B fee to fund projects necessary to meet environmental requirements. Much higher R&B fees would be needed to implement project improvements necessary to achieve the WUA farm turnout and measured water use allowances. 

I believe continued negotiation and cooperation between the FJBC and the tribes is a better way to protect irrigation water for farmers and ranchers than a return to litigation and conflict. It is also the best way to continue to reduce the role of the federal government in this irrigation project.

Dick Erb


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