Supreme Court sides with irrigators in Willow Creek dam case

Supreme Court sides with irrigators in Willow Creek dam case

News Type: State Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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The Montana Supreme Court decided that the state needs to enter into mediation with an irrigators group to resolve a conflict over the transfer of the Willow Creek Dam.

The high court earlier this month dismissed the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s request that the court overrule a Gallatin County District Court order forcing the agency to enter formal mediation with the Willow Creek Water Users Association on transferring ownership of the Willow Creek Dam.

In an opinion filed Feb. 6, the Supreme Court wrote that the district court does have the authority to order the agency into mediation on the matter. The finding sends the case back to Gallatin County District Court, where a mediator can be appointed and a schedule for the talks can be set.

 Colleen Coyle, an attorney for the Willow Creek Water Users Association, said the irrigators are “glad to have the opportunity to sit down and talk.”

“I think the Willow Creek Water Users are hopeful that we’ll be able to reach a solution,” Coyle said.

John Grassy, a spokesman for DNRC, said the agency is waiting for instructions from the district court on what comes next.

The Willow Creek Dam creates Harrison Lake a few miles east of the town of the same name. Built in 1938, the dam serves a number of irrigators in the area. According to a 2016 environmental assessment, the dam provides upward of 11,000 acre feet of water.

It has always been owned by the state but operated by the local water users group.

A  law passed in the 2015 Legislature asked DNRC to attempt to transfer the dam to the water users association. The two sides couldn’t agree on the terms of the transfer, so the water users association requested mediation through Gallatin County District Court.

DNRC appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the court didn’t have the authority to force the state agency into formal talks.

The Supreme Court dismissed the agency’s claim, writing in the decision that state law does give district courts the authority to appoint a mediator for cases between water right holders — in this case, both DNRC and the irrigators hold water rights. The court also dismissed DNRC’s claim that the cost of mediation — $1,750 — is a gross injustice.