Wyoming Can’t Hoard Water Protected by Yellowstone River Compact
Special Master appointed by U.S. Supreme Court denies Wyoming’s attempt to dismiss suit to protect Montana water rights
HELENA – A Special Master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court has confirmed Montana’s argument that the Yellowstone River Compact protects water users in Montana from upstream users in Wyoming, Attorney General Steve Bullock said today.
In his opinion, Special Master Barton Thompson of Stanford, California, declared that the Yellowstone River Compact generally protects pre-1950 water users in Montana from uses in Wyoming that began after the Compact was ratified. Thompson also said that Montana may sue Wyoming to enforce those water rights.
While the precise compact violations must still be proven at trial, the ruling is significant, as Wyoming had claimed that it had the absolute right to drain the Tongue and Powder Rivers without regard to downstream users.
Thompson’s opinion also ruled that Montana was correct in claiming that groundwater pumping — primarily associated with coalbed methane production in the Tongue and Powder River basins — must be counted towards each state’s allocation when it affects rivers and springs covered by the Compact.
“This opinion is very good news for all Montanans, but especially for those farmers and ranchers whose livelihoods rely on water from the Tongue and Powder Rivers,” Bullock said. “This case is of historic importance to Montana, but it doesn’t end with this decision. We’ll continue to fight for a conclusion that protects Montana’s interests.”
The decision denies the State of Wyoming’s motion to dismiss Montana’s lawsuit, which was initially filed in January 2007 before the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to protect the water rights allocated to Montana under the Yellowstone River Compact. Montana’s case sought to prevent Wyoming from depleting the Tongue and Powder Rivers through increased irrigation, new storage facilities, coalbed methane production, and other uses that came into play after 1950.
Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota entered into the compact in December 1950, each state’s legislature ratified it and the U.S. Congress consented to the compact in 1951.
Montana interprets the compact to protect each state’s water rights that were in actual use at the time of the compact. Wyoming asserts that “pre-1950″ rights are excluded.