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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Land Board expands oversight regarding water rights on state trust land

Judge James Manley today ruled the portion of the water compact unconstitutional that protects members of a yet-to-be-created water compact board from being sued.
Flickr user Brad Smith (CC-BY-NC-2.0)

A group of Montana’s top elected officials are expanding their oversight of the agency responsible for managing state trust lands. This comes after recent disputes over private water rights.

The Land Board voted unanimously Monday to be more involved in the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s management of state trust lands.

This decision comes after people leasing state lands for agriculture said DNRC tried to claim partial ownership of their individual water rights - after that water was used for livestock or irrigation on state land.

Under a change proposed by Attorney General Austin Knudsen, DNRC must now receive permission from the Land Board if it wants to challenge water ownership.

“This is going to require the DNRC to come to the Land Board from here forward. Any time they want to make any kind of a legal claim on anyone's water right they have to come to us and get approval,” Knudsen said.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that when water is allocated for a beneficial use on a piece of land, the right to the water is attached to the land, not the person who developed it. That ruling sided with DNRC claiming part of an individual's water right.

Lawyers for the state say there are three other ongoing water rights dispute cases, whose outcomes will be affected by the Supreme Court’s recent decision and the Land Board’s change.

Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
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