Voices: Montana’s fish win and anglers win with Water Rights Protection Act

Spring is the time of abundant water. Westslope Cutthroat, Montana’s state fish, sense rising flows and commence their age-old spawning migrations upstream to tributaries across Montana. It may seem like an odd time to think about water scarcity and demands, but there are important discussions happening in Washington, D.C. that should concern all Montana anglers and those who care about our world-class fisheries.

The Flathead Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited (FVTU) was founded in 1972, dedicated to conserving, protecting, and restoring Northwest Montana’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. FVTU has weighed in on countless projects and issues that impact our Northwest Montana streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs. Seldom are those impacts positive, so we have learned to know a good deal when we see one.

The negotiated Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ (CSKT) Water Compact is such a deal. It’s good for fish, it’s good for irrigators, it’s good for taxpayers, and it creates new jobs and economic activity in our communities.

Senator Steve Daines has introduced the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, S. 3019, to provide for federal ratification of the CSKT Compact and settle associated claims between the federal government, Montana, and the Tribes. Senator Jon Tester is co-sponsoring the legislation, and FVTU greatly appreciates both for their leadership on this issue. Congressional review is the next step towards ratifying this agreement that the Montana Legislature passed with bipartisan support in 2015. We urge its passage.

S. 3019 is a win for Montana’s fish and their coldwater habitat. The agreement unleashes millions of dollars of investment into an aging irrigation system that will improve water efficiency and make the entire Flathead Indian Irrigation Project more fish friendly, connecting fish like Westslope Cutthroat and Bull Trout with hundreds of miles of spawning tributaries and saving them from being trapped in dewatered irrigation ditches every fall.

FVTU is proud to have worked with the Tribes to care for wild and native fish throughout Western Montana for decades. This agreement strengthens that shared partnership. Furthermore, S. 3019 makes historic progress towards resolving thousands of water rights claims, preventing decades of costly litigation and court battles.

FVTU has spent many hours reviewing and evaluating the impact this agreement will have on coldwater fisheries. Here are some of the reasons we support the Compact:

  • It invests in water use infrastructure on the reservation, benefiting tribal and non-tribal water users, as well as fisheries;
  • It provides legal certainty for future water development and conservation measures in the Flathead region, including new irrigation, instream flow, real estate, hydroelectric, and recreation;
  • It will produce new and productive partnerships focusing on the common objective of making water go farther for more uses;
  • It will prevent years of expensive litigation among private, government, and tribal interests over water rights; and,
  • Importantly, some of the instream flow measures in the agreement help the State of Montana meet its trust responsibilities to all Montanans for maintaining healthy fish and wildlife populations on and off reservation.

To us, this is a common-sense compromise. S. 3019 is a good deal for Montana and its coldwater fisheries. It is time to pass the Compact.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee will open debate for this important legislation in the Congress. We will weigh in with our delegation and members of the Committee to express support for S. 3019 on behalf of Montana’s coldwater fisheries and anglers, and we hope that you do too.

To learn more contact Montana Trout Unlimited or FVTU at info@montanatu.org and www.flatheadtu.org.

Wade Fredenberg, a retired Fish Biologist, is the Secretary/Treasurer of Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited and writes with the full support of the FVTU Board.