Jim Gilman stood before a crowd of more than 50 people last week and asked them if they remembered where they were in April of 1982. Gilman is the water adjudication bureau chief for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Helena and he remembers exactly where he was during that time.
“I was working in the (DNRC) Kalispell regional office collecting statements of claim” to water rights in the Flathead Basin, Gilman said. And after having years to file their water-right claims, as is human nature, most people waited until the last minute. Across Montana, of the 219,000 claims filed, more than half arrived in the final week.
“People were lined up out the door, leaving boxes of claims,” Gilman recalled. “People just put their name on it, and we were lucky if we knew where they were.”
Now, the DNRC in the Flathead begins the daunting task of water-rights adjudication: figuring out whether residents with water rights are actually using the water in the amount and manner that they have claimed. It’s time to pull out many of those hastily scribbled forms from the early 1980s and determine if they are accurate.
The DNRC anticipates examining about 5,200 water-right claims over the next 18 months, and it is focused only on water rights that originated legally before July 1, 1973, the same year the state began its attempt to organize existing water rights. Out of Montana’s 85 basins, the Flathead is among the last to begin the water-rights examination process – and it could prove tricky.
As an area with a lot of real-estate transactions, in all but a few cases, it’s likely that whatever name from 1982 the DNRC has on file for a water right in the Flathead, there is a different owner now: Farms turn into subdivisions and shopping centers, and the water right is split, or a new landowner may not even be aware that they possess a water right. The Flathead also has more part-time landowners than many other areas of Montana, so letters to owners informing them that their water claim is up for examination may go unnoticed.
At the meeting last week, DNRC officials did their best to soothe the anxieties of Flathead residents – most of whom indicated that they owned a water right – worried that the state bureaucracy was about to descend on them and create headaches in the very old, very complicated and occasionally expensive aspect of Western life as it involves water. A humorous quiz was passed out with such questions as “Can DNRC take away my existing water rights claims?” (Answer: No), and “Do I have to get a lawyer?” (Answer: Maybe).
But DNRC Kalispell Regional Manager Terry Eccles emphasized that the adjudication process is a chance for people to learn more about the water right they own, and its value.
“There’s a fear factor; you get something from the state and it’s ‘Now, what do they want?’” Eccles said. “The more they work with us, the better the results are going to be.”
And the process may not be as complicated for the public as it appears at first. Nine local DNRC staff members will begin examining each water right claim to determine if its information is accurate concerning such aspects as the amount used or the true source of the water. The agency will work from aerial photographs, maps and a water resource survey conducted in 1940. Then the DNRC will send out a letter to the water right owner to explain their claim is under review. The owner may need to provide some information missing from the file.
If the water-right owner and the DNRC agree on the claim, the process is basically over. If there are disagreements, the owner can file a series of amendments to their claim, but disputes could end up before the state water court.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Eccles said, many people gave their wildest guess about the water they used, and this examination will provide information about how much water is really available in the Flathead.
“The more we know about what’s actually being used,” Eccles added, “the better decisions we can make about water and water rights in the future.”
There will be several other meetings about water-rights adjudication held this summer, and the DNRC urges the public to visit its Web site for more information.
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