HELENA, MONT. -- Governor Schweitzer's signing of legislation today that makes the Montana private water leasing program permanent demonstrates that, when it comes to water, much has changed in the state over the last decade, according to the conservation organization Trout Unlimited.
The measure, which was sponsored by State Representative Bruce Malcomb (R) and a bipartisan group of legislators, was signed into law this morning in a ceremony held in the Governor's office. In the hearing before the Senate Natural Resources Committee, both conservationists and agricultural groups supported the passage of HB 308. It passed the Senate on a unanimous vote.
The private water leasing program had been scheduled to sunset in this year. Established by the Montana Legislature in 1995, the program is designed to help improve stream flows for trout while benefiting the farming or ranching operation that holds the water right.
"When the voluntary transfer of water rights to instream use was first discussed in the legislature in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the debate was intense, and, at times, downright hostile," said Stan Bradshaw, an attorney for Trout Unlimited. "Agriculture was especially suspicious of allowing private groups like Trout Unlimited to have any involvement in water rights. It took years for a measure to pass, and when it finally did, it was sunsetted."
Bradshaw said since its passage in 1995, there have been 20 private leases or conversions to instream use approved statewide. Rivers like the Blackfoot, the Madison and the Yellowstone, to name only a few, have benefited from the leasing program. Instream leases have also benefited lesser-known streams.
In some cases, the leases have allowed irrigators to improve their management flexibility to the long-term benefit of their businesses. In several cases, the program has shown that an irrigator's water needs can continue to be fully met - through the introduction of new labor-saving technologies - while at the same time providing water for fish. Others have received payments for signing a lease.
"Not only has the water leasing statute benefited fisheries and agriculture, one of its biggest accomplishments is that it has brought conservationists and agricultural producers closer together. It has taught all of us the benefits of working together to find flexible, commonsense ways to benefit agriculture and fisheries," said Laura Ziemer, the director of Trout Unlimited's Montana Water Project, which has worked with irrigators and others to implement leases.