If you haven’t noticed, Montana has found itself in the center of a triad of unfortunate circumstances regarding water. The state is still undergoing statewide adjudication where water users must prove their historical use, claim water for formerly exempt uses, and defend challenges to their water use.
This water rights adjudication process is now taking place against a backdrop of catastrophic drought and fires. You got it—this process is happening when water is scarce and challenges to water right claims are expected to increase.
To make matters worse, the state is facing across-the-board budget cuts, which means getting the answers on your water rights in a timely fashion could prove difficult. Overwhelmed, overworked, and underpaid staff can only do so much.
Montana water rights are based on the prior-appropriation system, meaning that the earliest rights are the most valuable. The deadline to timely file claims for water rights in use as of June 30, 1973, known as historical water rights, was April 30, 1982. Many of these historical water rights date back to the late 19th century.
As you can imagine, finding information to substantiate claims that were filed 35 years ago based on events that happened over a century ago does not lend itself to quick Google searches. Maps and terrain have changed. Good luck digging through archived records. My work as a water rights consultant has often led me to drive all around Montana to various county clerk and recorder’s offices, district courts, government offices and historical libraries to search through fragile, barely legible documents; archived photos and maps; microfiche; and microfilm. Sometimes this time-consuming gum-shoeing is necessary, but not everyone has the time or resources to do this kind of research.
The solution, of course, is often the same as with all tough times: Find a way to do more with less. Either do it yourself, or find someone who can do it faster and better than you can, ultimately saving you time and money.
I have had the good fortune of working with, and helping to develop, one of the most powerful online water rights mapping tools in the industry: Water Sage. The platform is an interactive database application that links water and land information for several western states, including Montana. It collects data from several government agencies and makes it accessible in a map format.
For example, I can access Montana’s Department of Natural Resource and Conservation’s water right abstracts, water right claim files and detailed land parcel information from the application in a matter of minutes. I can also export water and land information to a spreadsheet, Google Earth, or a GIS file. Once I have exported the basic information to a spreadsheet or GIS file, I use Excel and QGIS to refine and customize the spreadsheet and the GIS map without wasting time typing in basic information.
A word of caution to those hiring someone to do your water rights research for you. Do your homework on them. Even though technology can save time, consultants, engineers and lawyers resist change. It seems easier and cheaper to maintain the status quo, but in the long run resistance to technology wastes time and money. Some company decision-makers refuse to allow their employees to purchase a program like Water Sage because it will cut billable hours (and income) for their firms. I find this logic puzzling. Providing the best possible service is the way to win new clients and keep existing ones.
Regardless of the method you choose, verifying your water rights in Montana is more important than ever. — Nancy Zalutsky, Ponderosa Advisors