Currents: Water Sage's Blog on Water Rights and Water Data

February 1, 2017: Montana Water Bills Advance in Legislature
Nancy Zalutsky
Montana Water Bills Advance in Legislature

The Montana Legislature is meeting in Helena, as it does for 90 days every odd-numbered year. During the biennial session, the Legislature sets the state budget for the next two years and passes general laws to govern the state. By January 31, eighteen bills have been introduced that could affect your water rights, and many more have been requested. You can participate in the legislative process by contacting a legislator or by testifying at the committee hearing of a bill. People who are paid to support or oppose legislation in Montana must register as a lobbyist, but a citizen can testify simply by going to the hearing and signing in as an opponent or proponent of the proposed legislation.

The Montana Legislature home page includes links that allow you to access the session calendar, send a message to a Legislator, find House and Senate Agendas and watch or listen to live audio or video feed of bill hearings. Clicking on the “2017 LAWS” icon takes you to a web page where you can read the text of a bill and check out its progress in committee. The LAWS page also provides information on how to set up an account where you can track legislative bills and receive notice when a bill is set for hearing. Committees usually hold a hearing on a bill and then take executive action on the bill at a later meeting. The executive action determines whether a bill advances to the full House or Senate for a vote.
Several of the water bills that have advanced out of committee are discussed below:

HB 48, sponsored by Rep. Bob Brown, clarifies the definition of “change in appropriation right” set forth in the Water Use Act to provide that a change in appropriation right does not include a change in the method of irrigation. Most of the testimony addressed the increased efficiency, decreased cost and labor savings realized by irrigators who change from flood irrigation to sprinkler irrigation. Irrigators are currently reluctant to adopt improved irrigation methods because of the burden of the water right change process. There were no opponents to the bill in the January 19th House hearing. HB 48 passed the House and was heard in the Senate Natural Resources Committee on February 1, 2017.

HB 49, sponsored by Rep. Bob Brown, revises the disclosure law related to water and clarifies the process for disclosing transfers of water rights. The purpose of the bill is to solve an ongoing problem of keeping water rights ownership updated. Under current statute, water rights are transferred by submitting a request to the Department of Revenue (DOR). DOR is responsible for transmitting the transfer request to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), but the requests take too long to get to the DNRC. Without correct ownership information, the DNRC and the Water Court cannot provide notice to water users of actions that could affect their water rights. The opponents of the bill testified that a provision of the bill provides for forfeiture of a water right for failure to update ownership. The bill was amended to remove the provision and passed out of committee on January 18, 2017. HB 49 has passed the House and was heard in the Senate Natural Resources Committee on February 1, 2017.

HB 124, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, requires that a water commissioner complete at least one educational program prior to administering water. The educational program is an annual seminar on commissioner and mediator duties, mediation techniques, and water measuring techniques. The District Court judge can exempt the water commissioner from the requirement. HB 124 passed the House on January 27, 2017 and has been referred to the Senate Natural Resources Committee on January 30, 2017.

HJ 3, introduced by Rep. Zach Brown, primary sponsor; Rep. Alan Redfield; and Sen. Chas Vincent, is a joint resolution of the Senate and the House requesting an interim study to examine the process for changing a water right. This bipartisan effort intends to review the current process to determine if it can be less confusing and complicated. There were no opponents to the bill, which was supported by Montana Association of Realtors, Senior Water Rights Coalition, Association of Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators, Montana Farm Bureau Federation, and Montana Water Rights Association. HJ 3 passed the House and was transmitted to the Senate on January 30, 2017.

SB 28, sponsored by Sen. Chas Vincent, authorizes the Water Court to review DNRC decisions on applications for water right permits and changes to water rights. The existing law only allows petitions for judicial review from DNRC decisions to be filed in District Court. SB 28 grants a party who is aggrieved by a final decision on a permit or change application to petition the District Court or the Water Court for judicial review of the decision. During the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a question was raised regarding which court had jurisdiction if more than one party filed a petition and the parties could not agree on the court. Therefore, the bill was amended to provide that if more than one party petitions the court, the District Court where the water right is located has jurisdiction. If more than one aggrieved party files a petition but no aggrieved party files a petition in the District Court where the appropriation right is located, the First Judicial District, Lewis and Clark County, has jurisdiction. The bill passed as amended and was referred to the House Judiciary Committee on January 24, 2017.

The Legislature passes laws that affect your rights, but you can make your voice heard by testifying before a committee or contacting your legislator.