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Montana Supreme Court Substantially Broadens Standing for Water Right Objectors

On June 23, 2011, the Montana Supreme Court held that Trout Unlimited, an organization lacking a water right but nevertheless interested in preserving instream flows for fish conservation, could object to water rights in a pending stream adjudication. A lower court had ruled that the organization could not and dismissed the case. That court had found “personal environmental and recreational interests in the water, alone, are not sufficient to establish the ‘personal stake’ required for standing to be heard on objections to claims in the present adjudication of existing water rights, unless those interests are coupled with an ‘ownership Interest’ in water or its use…” The Supreme Court concluded, however, “based upon the State’s ownership of the waters of Montana which it holds in public trust for the benefit of its people, and the undisputed specific interests of the members of [Trout Unlimited] in the Big Hole River basin that [Trout Unlimited]–under the facts of this case–has a sufficient ownership interest in water or its use to demonstrate ‘good cause’ to require the Water Court to hold a hearing or hearings on its objections under § 85-2-223, MCA.” The Court brushed aside concerns that the decision would open the adjudication process to an infinite number of objectors that could threaten to derail the entire stream adjudication process.

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