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Veto Stamp Brings Sigh of Relief for MT Water Rights Holders

April 30, 2009

Helena, MT – A veto stamp is seen as a bridge over troubled waters by many senior water rights holders in Montana. Governor Brian Schweitzer has turned thumbs down on a bill that would have reclassified water pumped out of the ground during coal bed methane production as "surface water" rather than groundwater, and thus not subject to traditional water rights. Senior water rights holders argue they'd have had no say when their underground water was depleted during development.

Mark Fix, a Tongue River area landowner whose family has senior water rights, says the legislation would have upended the decades-old water rights system that farmers and ranchers depend on.

"The Governor had the courage to do the right thing and protect the senior water rights holders in the state, and protect 140 years of water rights law."

He says the whole debate has left many water rights holders shaken by having seen how quickly they could lose a line to their livelihood.

"To think that coal bed methane companies could just come along and take that water and just leave you in the cold – it's pretty concerning."

Backers of the bill say the re-classification was needed to make it easier for those who want to use coal bed methane wastewater on their land or for livestock, and they pointed to the new water right as "temporary" – not a permanent right.

Fix, who is a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, says however that those who want to use the wastewater for their land can already do so under current law, without tromping on water rights holdings.

Deb Courson, Public News Service - MT