Kristin Sleeper, UM BRIDGES Trainee, interns with state representative

Picture of Trainee Kristin Sleeper in front of the Montana State Capitol Building

The Opportunities and Challenges of Administering Tribal Water Compacts in Montana: Trainee Kristin Sleeper details internship with Montana State Representative Zach Brown

Access to water defines the arid American West and water management is an explicit effort to balance appropriated water rights for all water users. This summer I took a deep dive on one aspect of Montana’s general stream adjudication: Tribal water compacts and their associated settlement agreements. The central question I researched is, where does the current governance system breakdown or leave questions related to the integration of state-based water rights and Tribal compact rights? Previous research and judicial opinions suggest that difficult and persistent questions remain regarding how best to quantify tribal water rights and how to jointly administer and enforce both tribal and state-based water rights.

To better understand the current governance system and identify where questions remain, I conducted confidential interviews with various water and tribal lawyers, administrators, legislators, hydrologists, and landowners. I was interested in people’s experiences, what they learned during the Tribal compacting process, and the potential for future water conflicts. To date, I have completed 23 interviews which detailed a spectrum of topics there were relevant to the State of Montana’s Water Policy Interim Committee, the Montana Water Court, and the legislative process.

I had the opportunity to formally present my preliminary findings to the Water Policy Interim Committee and Chief Water Judge on September 10, 2018. The need for water rights holders to have certainty about the quantities of water that will be legally available from year-to-year under the priority system is clear. Across the West, the potential for decreasing mountain snowpack and thus less reliable irrigation capacity during the late summer months could have devastating economic, environmental, and cultural consequences. Legal adjustments to previously available water, including legislative and administrative adjustments, could exacerbate these impacts to established water users. The results of my work are relevant to the State of Montana, the Water Policy Interim Committee, as well as to Tribal Nations and policymakers facing similar situations across the arid West.