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Published May 12, 2010, 09:16 AM

Montana water court ahead of schedule but issue lingers

HELENA, Mont. — The state is well ahead of schedule in processing a backlog of water rights claims, but observers worry a lingering issue could slow things down.

By: Matt Gouras, Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. — The state is well ahead of schedule in processing a backlog of water rights claims, but observers worry a lingering issue could slow things down.

Five years ago, renewed focus — and money — was put into resolving thousands of decades-old water claims. Since 2005, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has examined more than 40,000 claims.

Along the way, lawmakers put a new fee on water rights to help speed up the process, and then quickly put a kibosh on it after politicians from both side of the aisle lambasted it as a water tax. A trust fund was instead carved out of the state’s surplus several years ago to pay for speedier adjudication of the claims.

Agency Director Mary Sexton said about 16,000 claims still must be examined, and the work is scheduled to be completed by 2015.

But legislators monitoring the issue were told Tuesday that a problem matching computer databases is preventing the state from accurately documenting water rights in some cases.

Rep. Walter McNutt of Sidney, who chairs the Water Policy Committee, agreed that rapid progress dealing with a claims backlog that frustrates ranchers and farmers could be derailed by the problem.

“We feel good that they have examined the number of claims that they have, hopefully that gives them more time to get to this other problem,” he said.

Sexton said that the issue crops up as the agency tries to tie water rights information with tax records. This is being done because few people update water rights information as property is sold or inherited, leaving the agency with inaccurate information.

But they have had an issue matching the databases in some cases, particularly subdivisions. That has left them with a small percentage of claims that will require individual investigations to resolve, Sexton said.

Sexton downplayed the issue, however, saying it should be resolved in four to five months.

“We’re going to finish them, and it is not going to slow down the process at all,” Sexton said.

Once the DNRC examines the water rights, they are forwarded to the Montana Water Court, which then offers a preliminary finding on the owners of the water in the basin.

Those findings are then open for people to contest, before the court issues a final decision — a process that will take years.

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