U.S. Water News Online
HELENA -- Montana's new law to help hire additional
water-rights examiners and speed the settlement of water claims is
valid, Attorney General Mike McGrath said in an opinion the governor
Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Greg Petesch, head of the Legislature's
legal staff, had disagreed on the validity of the law.
It demands fees from thousands of farmers, irrigation districts,
businesses and other entities holding water rights, with the money
going for additional state personnel. The goal: Process claims to
water from Montana streams much faster, possibly in a 10-year instead
of a 30-year span.
The 2005 Legislature said the new fees would become void if
lawmakers did not commit at least $2 million, from other sources, to
the water-rights process.
Petesch concluded lawmakers did not supply enough money, because
dollars were not provided in a single appropriation. McGrath said the
law allows the $2 million to be calculated by adding up multiple
His opinion carries the weight of law, but can be challenged in
While the opinion was pending, the Montana Department of Natural
Resources and Conservation went ahead and hired several dozen people
to examine water claims.
"We continued all along with the understanding that the law would
be found valid or we would find some sort of legislative solutions,"
DNRC Director Mary Sexton said.
Sexton said the hiring of about 35 people is almost complete and
she hopes to have most on board in early July. They will receive two
weeks of training and likely will start examining claims in late
July, the director said. Presently only three to five people examine
water claims, Sexton said.
About 25 of the newly hired will work in Helena and the others in
DNRC regional offices, she said. Job notices were circulated
throughout the Northwest and drew a strong response, with many of the
applicants bringing university or technical-school backgrounds,
Sexton said. The upcoming training will include instruction in
Sexton said that without the new staff, the projected time to
settle all water claims was 30 years. Now she hopes the work can be
done within 10 years.
The Montana Constitution written in 1972 requires a system for
adjudicating all claims to water. Of the 220,000 claims filed over
the years, 57,000 remain unexamined.
The new law stands to impose fees on about 113,000 holders of
water rights. The biennial fees likely will range from $20 to $2,000,
depending on the amount of water involved.
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