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Guest column

Watch out for your water rights

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Nancy Zalutsky

Nancy Zalutsky

The Montana Legislature is in session, and 18 bills that could affect Montanans’ water rights have already been introduced, and many more have been requested. Your water rights are valuable, and you should know that it’s not difficult to participate in the legislative process.

Contact a legislator or testify at the committee hearing on a bill. People who are paid to support or oppose legislation in Montana must register as lobbyists, but a citizen can testify simply by going to the hearing and signing in as an opponent or proponent of the proposed legislation.

Links on the Montana Legislature website allow you to access the session calendar, send a message to a legislator, find House and Senate agendas, read a bill and watch or listen to live audio or video feed of bill hearings. 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.

Here are five bills that already cleared the rapidly approaching transmittal deadline:

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House Bill 48 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. The testimony focused the increased efficiency and decreased cost by changing from flood to sprinkler irrigation, but irrigators are currently reluctant to adopt improved irrigation methods because of the burden of the water right change process. HB 48 passed the House and was heard in the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

House Bill 49 revises clarifies the process for transferring water rights. The purpose of the bill is to solve an ongoing problem of keeping water rights ownership updated. The current statute makes the Department of Revenue responsible for transmitting the transfer request to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, creating a time lag between the agencies. 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 bill passed the House and was heard in the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

House Bill 124 requires that a water commissioner complete at least one educational program prior to administering water. The district court judge can exempt the water commissioner from the requirement. HB 124 passed the House and was referred to the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

House Joint Resolution 3 is a joint resolution 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. HJ 3 passed the House and was heard in the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

Senate Bill 28 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. If more than one aggrieved party files a petition, the district court has jurisdiction. The bill passed the Senate and was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

The Legislature passes laws that will affect your water rights, but you can make your voice heard by testifying before a committee or contacting your legislator. Don’t let the proposals sneak past you. Take advantage of one of the many of ways to get involved and connect the drops between these legislative proposals and your water rights.

Nancy Zalutsky has more than 20 years of experience in water rights and is currently a research analyst at Ponderosa Advisors LLC, providing information about water rights used in the development of Water Sage, an interactive mapping application that integrates information about water rights, land ownership and relative priority. Learn more at

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