Montana Ag Needs Action on CSKT Water CompactBy John Youngberg and Jay Bodner Water rights are the cornerstone of our agricultural economy. Without certainty, protection for existing water right holders, and a plan to define the federally reserved water rights of the tribes, Montana’s water users would be forced to foot the bill for decades of costly litigation and risk losing their existing water rights. That’s why we support the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) Water Compact and why we believe it is critical that our Congressional delegation act now to ratify the agreement that was passed by the Montana State Legislature in 2015. Without action on the Compact, the consequences for water users, farmers, and ranchers will be dire. By defining the federally reserved water rights held in trust, the Compact settles claims the CSKT have on existing water rights. Without the Compact, the CSKT would have to act on their claims in the Montana Water Court—claims that would impact thousands of Montana farmers, ranchers, and irrigators. A majority if not all of the CSKT claims are in areas where state-based water users have also filed claims. Without the Compact, individual farmers and ranchers will have to defend their water rights in court or risk losing them entirely—a process that in most cases will require hiring lawyers and isn’t cheap. The process of resolving all of those claims would drag on for decades and cost the agricultural community millions of dollars in the process—potentially impacting the financial viability of individual farm and ranch operations across our state that can’t afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars for attorneys and court costs.
Without the CSKT Water Compact, Montana taxpayers would also shoulder a large portion of the litigation costs, which will heap yet another expense onto the backs of our agriculture producers. If the CSKT is forced to act on its claims, taxpayers across our state would pay a minimum of $73 million to provide the Water Court with the funding necessary to address the massive number of water rights cases. Montana’s agriculture industry simply can’t afford to leave these claims unresolved. The negotiating parties worked for decades to produce an agreement that protects agriculture and other state-based water rights and we applaud the Legislature for approving it. The Compact is a fair and equitable compromise that will serve the best interests of Montana’s agriculture community and save taxpayer dollars. The choice here is simple—progress or paralysis. Jay Bodnar serves as the interim Executive Vice President for the Montana Stockgrowers. John Youngberg is the Executive Vice President of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.
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