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YOUR BOOTS ON THE HILL: United in agriculture, focused on water rights

The Montana Farm Bureau Federation’s motto is, “We Care for the Country.” We take that seriously, but we know we’re not the only ones who do.

The big highlight of the week was the Montana Ag Coalition reception in Helena. The Ag Coalition is a collective voice for agriculture, combining the expertise and experiences of seven of our state’s leading agriculture organizations: Montana Grain Growers, Montana Farm Bureau Federation, Montana Farmers Union, Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Woolgrowers, Montana Agricultural Business Association, and Montana Water Resources Association.

The reception welcomed legislators across party lines and backgrounds to learn more about Montana agriculture, get to know our organizations and hear a little bit about where our members’ priorities fall in matters of policy. If you’re a Farm Bureau member, you’re a part of the state’s largest agriculture organization, giving you a collective, powerful voice for policy that is set at the county level. Being a part of the Ag Coalition adds yet another layer of power to your voice.

Between these seven organizations, we may not always agree. When we don’t, that’s ok – we’re free to pursue the interests and directive of our members. But when we do, we’re able to collaborate to come up with thorough, comprehensive policy that serves a united agricultural voice.

The pieces of legislation that came before the House Natural Resource Committee this week served as a good example of how the Ag Coalition works together. We were able to stand together in unified testimony on each of these issues:

House Joint Resolution 3: Interim study of water right change process


Sponsored by Rep. Zach Brown (D) HD-63 / Bozeman. Heard in House Natural Resource committee Monday, Jan. 16.

A Joint Resolution is different than a typical bill. While a Joint Resolution goes through the same process as a bill, it’s not creating or changing law. Rather, it’s creating a recommendation to be carried out by a committee.

In this case, this Joint Resolution would approve a study of the water right change process in Montana, to be carried out between Legislative sessions by the Water Policy Interim Committee (WPIC). Because the Water Court is set to dissolve at the completion of the water adjudication process, this is an especially important process to understand and improve.

Our members’ policy supports this resolution, because we believe it’s valuable to invest time and resources to take a closer look at the water rights change process and find ways to make this process more efficient and effective in preserving senior water rights in Montana.

House Bill 124: Require education program for water commissioners


Sponsored by Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy (D) HD-42 / Crow Agency. Heard in House Natural Resources committee Monday, Jan. 16.

This straightforward bill requests that appointed water commissioners be required to complete one educational program through the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) prior to administering water.

When appointed, water commissioners serve an important role in refereeing and divvying out water in their basin. The water commissioner is appointed by the district court at the request of water users in the basin or district. They’re not required to have prior experience. Our members’ firm stance on protecting senior water rights defend the idea that a water commissioner should be well-versed in their duties and responsibilities, information and resources available to them, water distribution and measurements and specific measuring devises and methods. The DNRC training is already established, and we agree that it’s valuable.

House Bill 140: Clarify water commissioner appointments


Sponsored by Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy (D) HD-42 / Crow Agency. Heard in House Natural Resources committee Monday, Jan. 16.

Not every basin or sub-basin has or needs a water commissioner. Montana water rights holders may request the district court appoint a water commissioner should the need arise. Current law says a user or users must hold 15 percent of the water rights affected by a decree before requesting a water commissioner be appointed. House Bill 124 would add that a user or users may hold 15 percent of the flow right affected by the decree in order to make a commissioner request.

This bill simply offers additional criteria by which a water right holder may petition the district court for a water commissioner. Our members’ policy supports this addition.

Where are they now?


Several bills we previously discussed have progressed through the system. Here’s an update on where they are. Get more details on these bills by searching for previous “Boots on the Hill” columns at mfbf.org/on-the-trail/. 

Senate Bill 28: Allow Water Court review of certain DNRC decisions


Sponsored by Sen. Chas Vincent (R) SD-1 / Libby. Passed in Senate Judiciary committee, passed the Senate Floor, now being transmitted for consideration in a House committee.

If you recall, this bill would allow the Montana Water Court to review certain decisions of the DNRC. Currently in Montana, if a water right holder wishes to apply for a water right or make a change to an existing water right, they complete the process by going through the DNRC. If they aren’t satisfied with the final decision reached by the DNRC, they have the option of appealing the decision to their District Court.

SB 28 provides water right holders the option to appeal a DNRC decision directly to the Montana Water Court instead of the District Court. In the Senate Judiciary committee, this was amended to clarify what would happen if one person appealed to the district court and another appealed to the Water Court concerning the same water right. It was clarified the presiding district court would have jurisdiction.

Farm Bureau policy supported this clarification and continues to support this bill as it makes its way through the House of Representatives committee process now.

House Bill 48: Clarify definition of water right change


Sponsored by Rep. Bob Brown (R) HD-13 / Thompson Falls. Passed in House Natural Resource Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 18.

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. House Bill 48 will 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.

It’s now set to be heard and debated on the House floor. Our members’ policy continues to support this bill.

House Bill 49: Clarify process for updating water right transfers


Sponsored by Rep. Bob Brown (R) HD-13 / Thompson Falls. Amended and passed in House Natural Resource Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 18.

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. This bill would establish an opportunity for the water user to provide the appropriate paperwork directly to the DNRC to avoid a paperwork pileup.

You may recall our members’ policy was initially opposed to this bill, due to the aggressive language which established 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.  This language was amended out of the bill in the Committee, which leaves a bill we will support as it moves to be debated on the House floor.

If you’re a Farm Bureau Young Farmers & Ranchers member, don’t forget you have an opportunity coming up to come to Helena yourself and see this process in action. We have meetings arranged with department heads, your legislators and the Governor at our Calling on the Capitol event Jan. 24-25. Visit www.mfbf.org for details and to register.

You can also tune in to our Montana Farm Bureau Facebook page for live video updates each Friday morning to keep up with these bills as they progress.

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.