HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court said Thursday that Trout Unlimited can dispute water rights claims even though it doesn’t have a claim to the water itself.
The ruling overturns a Montana Water Court decision which had only allowed objections in ongoing cases by those with a water right elsewhere in a basin.
But the Montana Supreme Court said Thursday the advocacy group has a long history of active contributions on the Big Hole River and should be allowed to object to the water rights claims if it chooses.
Water Court judge Bruce Loble, whose initial ruling was overturned, said the high court decision will apply to other river basins in Montana. And he said it could open the door for other groups to get involved, although he expects the bar will be set high for determining who has a sufficient stake.
Loble’s court has made big strides in recent years in settling thousands of backlogged water rights claims in the state. Loble said he does not anticipate the high court ruling will slow the process down much because he expects few will get involved in the laborious water rights adjudication process.
But he said the details of the decisions, such as deciding which types of third parties can get involved, will have to be worked out and could have a bearing on the ultimate impact of the decision.
Trout Unlimited said the Supreme Court decision makes sure that those with a substantive interest now have a right to get involved in the process.
Mark Aagnes said the dispute started because the organization wanted to object to a few “extreme and egregious” water rights claims in the Big Hole River basin that it felt were going to use far more water than historically allowed. He said the group wants to make sure enough water is left for in-stream flows to cover both downstream agriculture uses and to protect trout.
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