Water Courts – What are They?

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Although not found in all jurisdiction, Water Courts perform an interesting judicial service where present. These courts which exist in states including Montana and Colorado generally handle matters concerning water rights.

The set up of a Water Court will vary by jurisdiction. In Montana, there is only one Water Court which serves the entire state. However, within the one Water Court are four divisions. According to state law, these divisions are based the “natural divides between drainages and the borders of the state of Montana.” The four divisions are the Yellow Stone River Basin, the Lower Missouri River Basin, the Upper Missouri River Basin, and the Clark Fork River Basin. Each division has its own “Water Judge,” who presides over the cases within the Water Court’s jurisdiciton. The Water Judge is appointed by the Montana Supreme Court. Similarly, in Colorado, while there is one Water Court, there are seven divisions based on the drainage systems of the rivers.

The types of cases which Water Courts have jurisdiction over generally include water rights created by state law. These rights can include the usage and administration of water. In some states, the jurisidiction of the Water Court is exclusive, meaning that any cases involve these subject matters must be handled in the Water Courts. In some states, the jurisdiction also includes Federal reserved water rights and Indian water rights within the state.Federal reserved water rights occur when the federal government reserves land in that state for a specific federal purpose, such as national wildlife refuges.

However, the manner in which water rights cases are presented and handled will also vary by state because there are two seperate principles that govern water rights. The two principles are called Prior Appropriation and Riparian. These principles govern even when there is not a specific Water Court that handles only water rights cases. Prior Apporopriation is the most common in the US judicial system. Through the Prior Appopriation principles, water rights are seen as other forms of property, and can therefore be handled as such. Whereas, through the Riparian system, water rights are connected with the adjoining land. In Appropriate jurisidicitions, owners have rights to water on a first-come-first-serve basis. Once someone uses a water source, they have created a right to continue using that source. New-comers may also use the water source, however, their rights are subject to those of the users before them. In this sytem there are specific dates and amount given to each owner (yearly quantities and appropriation dates). In this system, water rights can be bought and sold individually. In the case of Riperian systems, the water rights attach with the land its adjacent to, and a water right cannot be bought or sold seperate from its attached land.

The Montana Water Court recently launched an online searchable database for court records. Searches can be performed by keywords, Water Court Judge, document type, case number, date filed, or phrases/words found within the document. The search will produce a document of either the case summary or the actual decision.

In states without a specific water court, there may be a water division, such as in Utah, or water rights cases may simply be heard by a court of general jurisdiction. To find contact information, online record resources, laws and statutes, and other information related to Water Courts or other trial court, check out www.CourtReference.com.

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