By Brian Schweitzer
Water is the lifeblood of Montana. The first explorers to Montana arrived on the river and met the first Montanan's near a river. Trade routes began on the river. Gold mining began where water could be diverted from the creeks (pronounced cricks in Montana). The first real Montana political battles were about water rights not range rights or copper. Whiskey's for drinkin' and water's for fightin'.
We own water in Montana. If you use water, you have a filed water right. Your water right is filed according to the date filed or a system called prior appropriation. The first party to file has the first right and the last party to file has the last right. If there isn't enough to go around, the last parties are cut off first. There are rights for stock water, irrigation, hydroelectric dams, urban users have rights, fish and wildlife have rights and Indian Reservations have the oldest rights.
Part 1, paragraph 1 of Montana water law states, "Pursuant to Article IX of the Montana Constitution, the legislature declares that any use of water is a public use and the waters within the state are the property of the state for the use of its people and are subject to appropriation for beneficial uses."
Montana spawns the Missouri River, the longest River in America. Glacier National Park feeds waterways to the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Montana watches most of her water flow downstream to feed hydroelectric dams, shipping and industry elsewhere.
Montana Power Company began running hydroelectric dams in 1912 to fuel Montana's smelters and railroads. Water rights were filed and granted. The Public Service Commission began regulating power rates for Montana's consumers and industry soon after. Montana Power continued to generate and deliver electricity in Montana with the partnership of ratepayers who helped fund the development of transmission lines and generating capacity. This partnership maintained some of the cheapest electricity in America.
The people of Montana have sacrificed a great deal for cheap power. When Hungry Horse dam was built, abundant logging and wildlife habitat in Montana were surrendered. The cheap power created fifty years of high paying jobs at the Aluminum smelter near Columbia Falls, but the plant is now closed. Fort Peck Dam inundated hundreds of productive farms and Yellowtail dam was built over the objections of tribal leader Yellowtail and the Crow Nation.
People on the Missouri, Kootenai and Flathead Rivers also made sacrifices. Cheap Electricity meant jobs for our children and grandchildren. As Montana Water Law states, "waters within the state are the property of the state for the use of its people". What better use for the people of Montana then cheap electricity?
What good is a water right and water in the river if you can't afford the electricity? In 1998, politicians claimed they had a plan to double the value of Montana's agricultural output, in part by converting more than 500,000 acres from dryland to irrigated land. With current crop prices, farmers cannot afford to pay more for electricity. Montana will irrigate fewer acres! More water, electricity, and jobs will flow out of state.
When Montana deregulated electricity in 1997 allowing MPC to sell the generating assets to Pennsylvania Power and Light, our legacy of cheap power was sold down the river. The cost of generating electricity in Montana has changed very little during the last two years. The generators of electricity now claim that they need to sell Montana's water and coal to Montanan's at California prices. Most of the electricity produced in Montana stays in Montana. The surplus power is shipped out of state. The power companies only possess transmission capacity to ship a fraction of Montana generated power out of state. How can they demand a California price when they can't deliver to California?
We should support additional energy production for our country. Montana has coal, oil, gas, wind and water. We can create high paying jobs with wise energy development, but let's remember to take care of Montana's energy needs first. It is prudent and it is the law.
Montana water belongs to the people of Montana. It is time that the people of Montana demand that our leaders stand up and fight. We already watch most of Montana's water flow out of state with little beneficial use for the people of Montana. Don't let energy take the same route. Whiskey's for drinkin' and water's for fightin'.