In her Jan. 26 opinion, “Congress must not pass the water compact,” Jeanette Zentgraf displays a willful disregard for the facts behind the compact, as well as the events leading to its passage.

Rather than focusing on the facts of what the compact does and how it will benefit Montanans, she calls the passage of the compact an “affront” to those who testified against it—as if her feelings about the compact somehow outweigh the real benefits it will provide to water users across our state.

Zentgraf’s mindset is a prime example of the way this small group of opponents approached the compact during the legislative session—replacing reality with beliefs and facts with feelings.

When Gov. Steve Bullock signed the compact, he did not “defy” any law or judicial challenge, as Zentgraf suggests. He signed it because a bipartisan majority of the legislature put it on his desk after years of negotiations, public meetings and discussions where this small group of compact opponents had many opportunities to have their voice heard and be part of the solution, yet time and time again chose instead to sit on the sidelines.

By supporting the compact, Bullock, Attorney General Tim Fox and all those who voted to pass the compact through the legislative process acted in the best interest of Montanans. It is thanks to their actions that farmers, ranchers and water users across our state can rest a little easier knowing they won’t be forced into court and that their water rights are protected.

Those who testified in favor of the compact detailed the impacts that failing to pass the agreement would have on their farms, ranches and small businesses. The people that comprise the backbone of our state’s economy, along with tribal members and experts on Montana water law, all testified to the crucial role that passing the compact played in protecting our state’s water resources for future generations. Yet opponents like Zentgraf turn a blind eye to the fact that without the compact, many farmers and ranchers would be forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend their existing water rights in court—dollars that for many would be the difference between paying off their operating loan for the year and going out of business.

Additionally, Zentgraf claims that passing the compact deprives opponents of the ability to file lawsuits. The passage of the compact does no such thing. Anyone who disagrees with the agreement is free to have his or her day in court. If they want to litigate, there is nothing in the compact that prevents them from doing so. However, not passing the compact would have forced those who have no desire to be involved in litigation to engage in an uphill battle to defend their water rights against those of the tribes, many of which carry the priority date of “time immemorial” which would make it nearly impossible for those defending their rights water to prevail in court.

Without the compact, Montana’s water users are left with nothing but a hope and a prayer that the water sustaining their livelihood will be there in the future.

Before staking the lives and businesses of those who depend on the successful passage of the compact on her beliefs, perhaps Zentgraf should take a moment to consider the hard science behind the compact and the real financial implications for our state if it is not passed.

Tom Beck served as a state senator from 1987 through 2001. He was president of the Montana Senate in 2001 and was chief policy advisor for Gov. Judy Martz. He is a co-chair of Farmers and Ranchers for Montana. 

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