What HB22 Means to Montanans

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What House Bill 22 Means to Montanans
Montanans who have filed for water rights should have received a bill from the DNRC in the last couple of weeks. There are many questions surrounding water adjudication and what it means. I will attempt to answer some of the questions I've been asked in the last week surrounding the bills. The 2003 Legislature passed HJR4 to have the Environmental Quality Council examine the water issues in the state. A report of their findings was published in a booklet called "Montanans' Water: Where is it? Who can use it? Who decides?" Basically what they found is that our Water Court is moving at a snail's pace and was in 'dire need of attention'. At the current rate of progress it would be another forty to fifty years to have a legal, factual claim to our own water--a private property right.


The legislature found this unacceptable and Rep. Walt McNutt-R(Sidney) introduced HB22 by request of the EQC last session. This bill was the funding source to speed up work by the DNRC to complete the claims and send them on to the water court judge to finish the decree process. There are 57,000 water claims yet to be decided out of a total 220,000 filed. HB22 requires that the claims be finished by June 30, 2015 and be sent to the court for finalization. The fees stop if certain benchmarks are not met by the DNRC so the process cannot slow down without legislative scrutiny. The fees (taxes) are capped at $31 million and will terminate if the cap is reached sooner.  Lobbyists supporting the legislation came from all sectors including county commissioners, realtors, agricultural interests, wildlife groups and power generation companies. Testimony centered around similar themes: too slow and cumbersome in its current form, cloudy titles when water rights cannot be assured by the courts, losing the ability to be accurate, illegal use of water by some, drought conditions putting pressure on water rights, other states having defensible rights when Montana doesn't. Five levels of water use were included in the bill with the irrigators picking up sixty percent of the total fees since they use at a greater rate than individual households. Individual households will pay the least but everything is dependent on how many claims each person has filed.

November's call for a special session by Republicans had the adjudication fees covered in House Bill 7. When Governor Schweitzer got nervous and trumped the January special session by one of his own called last month, there was no consideration for some of the excess taxes ($300 million) paying these fees instead of the taxpayers.  Rep. Debby Barrett-R from Dillon collected enough signatures on her petition to broaden the scope of the December session to include water adjudication fees. Bernie Olson's (R-Lakeside) vote with the Democrats on the governor's bill (51-49) destroyed the Republican's plan to amend the governor's bill to pay for adjudication and provide some residential property tax relief. The short session saved some money but dealt a loss for taxpayers. Pressure is mounting to get our water rights certified by a court which makes them legally defensible. Missouri is putting pressure on us for more Fort Peck water to float the tugboats. We have no leverage with Canada for the flows on the Marias or St. Mary's rivers. Downstream water flows for salmon and every other critter are dependent on our uses in the headwaters. Wyoming would like to claim all of our southern flows. Municipalities continue to demand more water for downstream states. Future Montana development will depend on the water to support it.  Idaho finished their adjudication last year and now have verified water rights enhancing their private properties. Making adjudication a priority in Montana is thirty years past due. Specific questions about your water right claims can be directed to the Kalispell regional office of the Department of Natural Resources (752-2288). Their staff has been very helpful with many questions during the last week.  We all know that water will be the gold of the 21st century. The Republican plan of action contains a bill for the 2007 session to remove this burden from the taxpayers and have it funded through state coffers
 with excess tax collections. The old cowboys used to say, "Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting." It's time to know when to drink and when to adjudicate. Our property rights and water availability depend on it.
 Rep. Dee Brown
 Natural Resources Committee
Administration Vice-Chair
 Fish, Wildlife & Parks Committee
 Interim Audit Committee