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Water Committee Focuses on Water Court Role

Posted Date: 
April 28, 2014
Jason Mohr, Water Policy Interim Committee Staff

Montana’s Water Court may need a makeover, members the Water Policy Interim Committee are expected to hear in May.

 Two Montana judges – including the Supreme Court chief justice – are scheduled to present their ideas of perhaps expanding the reach of the specialized court. The Legislature created the court in 1981 to adjudicate thousands of water rights claims filed in the 1980s and 1990s. The court’s main task is to determine the final priority list of water rights holders in every hydrologic basin, as well as other important aspects of each claim, such as place of use or period of use. As part of this process, the Water Court weights objections to each claim. The court must approve all water rights settlements with federal agencies or Indian tribes.

 The Water Policy Interim Committee meets May 12-13 in room 172 of the Capitol building, with discussion of the Water Court scheduled for the first day.

 The Water Court is only one venue for solving regulatory issues related to water rights. The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation issues permits for new water uses or changes to existing rights. Meanwhile, district courts enforce water rights through the appointment of water commissioners and also untangle water rights disputes. Districts courts routinely lean on Water Court masters to aid in enforcement actions or “certified controversies.” Department of Natural Resources and Conservation staff provide technical help to the Water Court.

Chief Water Judge Russell McElyea told the water policy committee last year that it may be time to expand the role of the Water Court to improve efficiency. McElyea and the University of Montana Law School will present a study of the legal processes related to water rights in Montana on May 12. Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath is also scheduled to discuss the topic May 13.

 Also on the committee’s agenda will be the proposed water rights settlement for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, including a discussion of water rights claimed off the CSKT reservation lands, and a proposal by Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, and Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell for further analysis of the settlement.

 For more information on the committee’s activities and upcoming meeting, visit the committee’s website or contact Jason Mohr, committee staff.

Committee website:

Committee staff: or 406-444-1640

Jason Mohr | | (406) 444-1640