Western MT Water Users v. Mission Irrig. District

Western MT Water Users Assoc., LLC v. Mission Irrig. Dist., 2013 MT 92 (April 9, 2013) (7-0) (Morris, J.)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court has issued a final appealable order; (2) whether the district court properly granted the writ of mandate and injunction; and (3) whether the district court properly determined that the irrigation districts had to comply with §§ 85-7-1956 and 85-7-1957, MCA, before executing the Water Use Agreement.

Short Answer: (1) Yes, because the order included an injunction; (2) no, because the district court issued its order on grounds not raised or argued by the parties; and (3) no, because those statutes apply only to contracts with the U.S. for a loan of money.


Facts: Congress authorized the Secretary of the Interior to construct the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project to deliver water to irrigable reservation lands in 1908. The Flathead Joint Board of Control and the United States have submitted claims for these water rights to the Montana Water Court. The Western Montana Water Users Association, LLC, comprise a group of landowners who claim to possess irrigation project water rights for irrigation. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes claim aboriginal water rights and water rights reserved by the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, including water used by individual tribal members and non-members for irrigation. The state created a Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission to negotiate a settlement of water rights claim by Indian tribes, including the CSK Tribes’ claim to irrigation project water rights. The state, the CSK Tribes, and the United States negotiated a proposed compact to settle the CSK Tribes’ water rights claim. The irrigation districts are not party to the compact. The compact is not at issue in this case. The CSK Tribes, the United States, and the irrigation districts drafted a second document, the Water Use Agreement, as an appendix to the proposed compact. The Water Use Agreement states that one purpose of the agreement is to settle the rights of irrigators served by the Flathead Indian irrigation project to receive irrigation water. The Water Users sought a writ of mandate against the irrigation districts, arguing §§ 85-7-1956 and 85-7-1957, MCA, apply to the Water Use Agreement. These statutes would require the irrigation districts to submit the final Water Use Agreement to a vote of the irrigators, and to receive approval from a district court for the Water Use Agreement.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court issued an alternative writ of mandate, ordering the irrigation districts to comply with §§ 85-7-1956 and 85-7-1957, MCA. After holding a hearing on the applicability of the statutes to the Water Use Agreement, the court issued an order finding the question of whether the statues applied moot, and issued a writ of mandate enjoining the irrigation districts from entering into the Water Use Agreement or any similar agreement on the basis that the agreement contained provisions that exceeded the irrigation districts’ authority. The irrigation districts appeal, and the Supreme Court vacates the writ of mandate and injunction as well as the alternative writ of mandate.

Reasoning: (1) The Water Users argue the district court never issued a final appealable order; however, the court issued an injunction as part of its mandate. Injunctions are immediately appealable. Water Users also argue the Court cannot consider the irrigation districts’ claim that the statutes do not apply to the Water Use Agreement because the district court considered these statutes in its alternative writ, but not explicitly in the writ of mandate. However, “[a]n appeal from a judgment draws into question all previous orders and rulings excepted to or objected to which led up to and resulted in the judgment.” M.R. App. P. 4(4)(a). (2) The district court issued the writ and injunction on a ground neither briefed nor argued before it. The sole issue raised by Water Users was the applicability of §§ 85-7-1956 and 85-7-1957, MCA. The district court instead focused on the Water Use Agreement, and held its provisions gave away the rights of individual irrigators – rights claimed by the U.S. and the CSK Tribes. The writ did not order the irrigation districts to do anything, and the Water Users did not seek injunctive relief. The writ and injunction are therefore vacated. (3) Vacating the writ of mandate restores the alternative writ. The Court determines that the statutes sought to be applied, §§ 85-7-1956 and 85-7-1957, MCA, apply to only to contracts with the United States for a loan of money. The Water Users cannot show that the irrigation districts failed to perform a clear legal duty, as required for a writ of mandate. The Court therefore dissolves the alternative writ of mandate.