Ravalli County commissioners object to USFS water rights claim.
August 9, 2013 By Perry Backus
HAMILTON - The Ravalli County commissioners continue to voice opposition to the U.S. Forest Service’s acquisition of in-stream state water rights on streams inside the Bitterroot National Forest. This week, the commission voted unanimously to object to the agency’s notice to file for water rights on Nelson Creek, a small tributary to Nez Perce Creek in the West Fork Ranger District. Similar objections on other waterways by the county have been denied by the state. The Bitterroot National Forest is working through a process outlined under a 2007 water rights compact between the state of Montana and the Forest Service, which allows the federal agency to file for in-stream water rights on national forest lands. Under the compact’s terms, the in-stream flows are junior to any other water right claimed on the stream. The new water right claims stop at the national forest boundary and are non-consumptive. The process of acquiring water rights under terms of the compact have been occurring on all national forests in Montana, said Jed Simon, the agency’s regional water rights program manager. “The Bitterroot is up there in terms of production, but all the forests are involved in this process,” he said. So far, Simon said, no other county has objected to the process. The agency is focusing on acquiring in-stream rights on streams with fish species of special concern. On the Bitterroot Forest, those species include westslope cutthroat and bull trout, Simon said. The agency has filed for water rights on Bertie Lord, Blodgett, Deer, Nelson, Lost Horse, Lavene, Boulder, Bear and Nelson creeks so far. “The Bitterroot will be doing more this year,” Simon said. The compact allows for the agency to file for the state-based water rights in closed basins, like the Bitterroot. The terms of the compact also requires anyone filing an objection to have standing on the creek, which could include having a water right or water-related project in the works. Ravalli County’s objections have been denied due to a lack of standing, Simon said. The county commission objected to the $25 fee charged by the state to object to the process. Commissioner Greg Chilcott was particularly incensed over that portion of the process. “I don’t know how they get around our constitutional right to participate in this process,” he said. “I don’t know how you sell that right.” The commission also objected to the water rights being claimed in a closed basin. Commissioner Ron Stoltz said the agency’s ability to file for water rights in a closed basin gives the edge to the federal government over the private individual. Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 20, 2013