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YOUR BOOTS ON THE HILL: Reduce water rights red tape, reward elk management

The Water Policy Interim Committee was busy in the off-season this year, and the second week for the Montana Legislative Session has been filled with legislation suggested from that committee.

This is a joint, bi-partisan committee that studies water quality and quantity issues between sessions and provides suggested legislation to the committees. It’s often referred to by its acronym, WPIC, which sounds a lot like “Whippit” when pronounced to those not as familiar with legislative lingo.

Here’s a rundown of policy that was brought to pertinent ag committees during the week:

House Bill 48: Clarify definition of water right change

Sponsored by Rep. Bob Brown (R) HD-13 / Thompson Falls. Heard in House Natural Resource Committee on Monday, Jan. 9.

This bill would amend current water law to note that a “change in appropriation right” does not include a change in water use related to the method of irrigation.

Change in appropriation right is currently defined as a change in the place of diversion, the place of use, the purpose of use, or the place of storage. Without the amendment proposed in this bill, water right holders who want to change from flood irrigation to pivot irrigation are currently required to go through the change review process with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC).

Historically, we’ve seen that when that change review process is triggered, the DNRC can reduce the number of acres you can irrigate, because it requires a reduction of acres with increased efficiencies or production.

For example, if you’ve historically flood irrigated a square field, then put in a pivot, it’s possible the pivot would pull in additional acres on the corners of the field.

The intent of this bill is to simplify this process for irrigators. This bill would allow irrigators to comply with the law when changing from flood to pivot irrigation without going through the complex, time-consuming and bureaucratic change process.

Irrigators are working to conserve water when they switch to pivot irrigation, and we think DNRC should conserve irrigators’ time in the process. Farm Bureau’s member policy supports this bill. Contact members of the House Natural Resource Committee and let them know if you support it as well.

House Bill 49: Clarify process for updating water right transfers

Sponsored by Rep. Bob Brown (R) HD-13 / Thompson Falls. Heard in House Natural Resource Committee on Monday, Jan. 9.

 This is another bill that came from the WPIC committee. Currently, when a water right is transferred as a part of a realty transaction, the ownership transfer is subject to a DNRC fee and Department of Revenue filing.

Unfortunately, these requests often get stacked up and bottlenecked at the Department of Revenue, holding up the process for the DNRC. We recognize that this is a problem and a better system needs to be established.

House Bill 49 aims to solve this paperwork pileup, but we’re leery of the language they’ve used to get there. This bill establishes the authority for a water judge or water master to terminate a water right if a participating party does not comply with the paperwork outlined in the process requirements.

Farm Bureau member policy is strongly opposed to this kind of aggressive language, and we believe that the termination of a water right is an inappropriate consequence. We’ve asked the committee to consider amending the bill to take out all mention of terminating water rights as a consequence.

However, another piece of this bill would establish an opportunity for the water user to provide the appropriate paperwork directly to the DNRC. This would temporarily circumvent the Dept. of Revenue’s bottleneck and get the job done.

If the amendments to remove “termination of water rights” language passes, we would support this bill. We urge you to get in contact with members of the House Natural Resource Committee quickly to tell them you support removing this harsh language from House Bill 49.

House Bill 96: Revise free elk license/permit for landowner providing free public elk hunting.

Sponsored by Rep. Zach Brown (D) HD-63, Bozeman. Heard in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 10.

House Bill 96 would provide additional incentives to private landowners who offer free public elk hunting through the FWP’s 454 program. Under this existing program, this bill would offer a landowner one free private landowner elk tag for every four public hunters you agree to allow on your property.

This bill would also allow the landowner to designate that tag to a family member or full-time employee. There was some discussion on amending the law to allow the landowner to designate the tag at their discretion, but that amendment was not yet proposed as of the Jan. 10 hearing.

Some background information: when a landowner qualifies for and signs up for the 454 program, they agree to allow a certain number of hunters on their property. The FWP then randomly draws who those hunters are from a database of registered sportsmen.

This isn’t a perfect system. From our members’ standpoint, we believe we have a grossly overpopulated and under-managed elk herd in the state. We would like the FWP to come up with stronger management tools. But for landowners who are living in regions that are overrun with elk, this is a small step in the right direction to reward them for helping manage this out of control elk population.

Again, we would encourage you to reach out to House FWP Committee members to share your thoughts on how they can craft legislation that will help manage that population.

Chelcie Cargill is Montana Farm Bureau Federation’s Director of State Affairs and a fifth-generation rancher from Sweet Grass County, Montana. In addition to lobbying full-time on behalf of farmers and ranchers, Chelcie and her husband are growing their own herd of commercial cattle and a professional fencing business. Chelcie can be contacted at (406) 587-3153 or chelciec@mfbf.org. The Montana Farm Bureau Federation is a non-partisan, non-profit, grassroots organization that represents 22,000 member families in Montana.