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DNRC Headquarters
1539 Eleventh Ave. Helena, MT 59601
Phone: (406) 444-2074 | Fax: (406) 444-2684
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What is Adjudication? - HB22 Information


Water Rights Adjudication in a Nutshell

Every water right is a story. The story begins when the water is diverted from a stream, well, lake, etc., and put to a beneficial use such as irrigation, domestic, or for stock. This is called appropriating water and is the legal basis for all water rights in Montana. The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) is required to help the Montana Water Court in understanding the who, what, where, why and how of each old water right. This assistance helps the Water Court to issue water right decrees.

The Water Court has the exclusive authority under Montana 's Water Use Act to decree and adjudicate (resolve) objections to, or issues on existing water rights (those with dates of first use, called priority dates, before July 1, 1973). Some claims date back to the first settlement of an area and have passed through many owners. Even though the owners of these old water rights had a valid claim to water, they were required to file Statements of Claim for these water rights by April 30, 1982, to preserve them. Statements of Claim were accepted until July 1, 1996, but claims filed after April 30, 1982 are subordinate or junior to Statements of Claim filed on or before April 30, 1982.

DNRC has the task of sorting through these old water rights basin by basin and reporting its findings to the Water Court. The DNRC is sending letters of inquiry and review abstracts of these old water rights to the current owners when information in the original Statements of Claim is unclear or incomplete. It is important for owners to respond to any such request. If owners fail to respond, DNRC is required to place remarks on the abstract of a Statement of Claim identifying the unclear or incomplete information. Such remarks may negatively affect the use of the water right by jeopardizing the ability to transfer or enforce a water right. Once the DNRC completes the examination of water rights in a basin, the Water Court will issue the water right decree for that basin. Unclear or incomplete information remarks on the abstracts of any water rights in the decree will be required to be resolved by the Water Court .

In 2005 the Montana Legislature passed House Bill 22 (HB22) to speed up the pace of water right claims examination and issuance of water right decrees, and is requiring that all Montana water users share in the cost of completing the adjudication of Montana water rights by 2020.

Why are we doing this now?

Downstream states are demanding water in increasing amounts. Montana cannot defend its water use from other states' demands or calls on water until it has completed the adjudication of all of the water rights in Montana , and knows how much of our water is currently being claimed and used. Issuing water rights decrees for every basin in Montana will help the state establish its historic usage. In the event of downstream calls for water from other states or Canada , Montana water users are better protected with these decrees in place. Decrees also assist in settling disputes among users. Enforcing water rights is only possible with a water right decree in place. Settling water rights is also helpful for the state's economic development. Knowing how much water is available in a basin or area assists planners and developers.