Ruling backs Montana's right to Wyoming water for reservoir

BILLINGS, Mont. — Wyoming will be obligated to provide enough water to fill a large Montana reservoir under a ruling from a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But the ruling rejected Montana's bid to be reimbursed for millions of dollars in attorney fees and would provide the state only minimal compensation out of a long-running legal dispute with its southern neighbor.
Montana claimed in a 2007 lawsuit that it had been shorted on water flowing down the Tongue River from Wyoming during 15 years over the past several decades.
As the case stretched across the tenures of three attorneys general, Montana racked up more than $4.6 million in litigation expenses, according to information released by state officials at the request of The Associated Press. The information covered expenses through May 2014.
It includes at least $3 million since the end of 2010 — money the state would not be able to recover if the U.S. Supreme Court approves this week's ruling from Special Master Barton Thompson Jr.
Ranchers and farmers in both states depend on the Tongue River, which flows north from Wyoming and eventually joins the Yellowstone River. Montana argued in its lawsuit that Wyoming for years had broken a 1950s-era water compact by allowing irrigators, oil and gas companies and small reservoir owners to take too much water from the Tongue and Powder rivers.
The claims on the Powder River were eventually dismissed.
Going forward, Thompson's ruling would require Wyoming to ensure enough water passes over the state line to fill the Tongue River Reservoir near Decker, Montana, to near capacity.
Despite being rebuffed on the legal fees, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox declared victory. The decision was a "big win" because it forces Wyoming to recognize Montana's right to water for the reservoir, he said in a prepared statement.
But after justices in March concluded shortages had previously occurred in just two of the years Montana claimed, Thompson said Montana deserves less than $36,000 in compensation. Wyoming could alternatively provide an equivalent value in water for the Tongue River Reservoir, said Thompson, a Stanford University law professor.
Thompson also said Montana was not entitled to costs incurred since February 2010, when he issued his preliminary recommendations in the case.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said he, too, was pleased with the decision, adding that he looked forward to bringing the decade-long dispute to a close.
Either side can appeal the ruling.