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Water rights in Montana are guided by the prior appropriation doctrine. Montana law establishes that the state’s water resources are the property of the State of Montana and are to be used for the benefit of the people. Montana has closed some of its river basins to certain types of new water appropriations due to water availability problems, over appropriation, and a concern for protecting existing water rights. Montana water law authorizes the closure of basins to certain new appropriations through the adoption of administrative rules and the negotiation of reserved water right compacts.
Montana water law is contained in the Montana Water Use Act (Title 85, Chapter 2, MCA) of 1973. The act (effective July 1, 1973) changed the water rights administration significantly in the following ways.
- All water rights existing prior to July 1, 1973, are to be finalized through a statewide adjudication process in state courts.
- A permit system was established for obtaining water rights for new or additional water developments.
- An authorization system was established for changing water rights.
- A centralized records system was established (prior to 1973, water rights were recorded, but not consistently, in county courthouses throughout the state).
- A system was provided to reserve water for future consumptive uses and to maintain minimum instream flows for water quality, fish, and wildlife.