The future of water adjudication, administration and enforcement in Montana is the subject of a bill that saw division Monday among agriculture and other water users weighing in.
Western water law is a complex and contentious issue. Water rights are assigned by priority date, meaning older water rights are “senior” to newer “junior” rights and get priority for use in agriculture, mining, municipal water or other uses such as instream flows. Determining who is first in time has been the duty of the Montana Water Court since 1979.
Following ratification of the state constitution in 1972 which recognized existing water rights, the Legislature passed the Montana Water Use Act of 1973. That tasked district courts with issuing final decrees on nearly 220,000 pre-1973 water rights to determine the entirety of priorities in each of Montana’s basins. But in 1979, recognizing the enormity of the work, lawmakers created the Water Court, which has slowly been wading through rights in an effort to adjudicate disputes and reach final basin decrees for the state by 2028, at which time the court would expire and dissolve.
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