Montana Water Rights

Montana Water RightsMontana water rights are additional property rights that define and control the volume and distribution of water from wells and streams. The owners of the water rights must put the water to beneficial use without waste to retain their right to use the state of Montana’s water.

Here are the key points to understanding Montana water law.

All water in Montana is owned by the State, subject to appropriation for beneficial uses by water right claimants. Water right holders do not own the water. They only own the right to use the water. Water rights are property rights and they can be leased or sold. The Constitutions of the United States and Montana protect water right holders from being deprived of those rights without due process of law. A water right is a license to use the State’s water for beneficial purposes without waste.

Water Rights information is kept in a database administered by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation – Water Rights Bureau (DNRC).

Montana water law follow the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation – First in Time, First in Right. This doctrine developed out of the year-round need for water for mining (and later agriculture) in a climate where water is seasonal. First in Time, First in Right means Water rights are ranked according to the date on which the water was first put to beneficial use.

Priority date is critical, because water users with the earliest priority date (senior water right holders) can divert the FULL amount of their claim before claimants with later (junior water right holders) can divert ANY water. If the water source cannot supply enough water to meet all claims (as when the river flows drop after spring flood), junior water users must cease diverting water in descending order of priority date to allow those with senior water rights their full claim amount. The law does NOT mandate that shortages be shared among water users.

The nature of a water right in Montana is very well defined. Every water right has:

  • Priority Date: the date the water was first put to beneficial use.
  • A Specific Source: a stream or spring (for surface water) or groundwater (for a well).
  • A Specific Point Of Diversion: that point where the water is diverted from its source(head gate or wellhead).
  • A Specific Place Of Use: defined in acres, township, range, and section.
  • A Beneficial Use: including, but not exclusively, irrigation, stock water, municipal, industrial, domestic, lawn and garden, and augmentation.
  • A Specific Quantity: in cubic feet per second.
  • A Season Of Use: Domestic and stock water uses are typically year round. Irrigation is usually April to October.