Water Rights Offer Glimpses Into Our History


Water Rights Offer Glimpses Into Our History

Water rights tell the story of the American West and the generations of people who toiled to survive and flourish there. The rich history told in the records of water claims provides the foundation for water use today and is essential to know for contemporary land and water rights owners in order to protect their water rights.

History has a way of transporting us back in time. When we read about the first time the Corps of Discovery encountered a grizzly bear, we may feel a rush of adrenaline. When we read about an Oklahoma farm family hunkered down during the Dust Bowl, we may feel our lungs tighten. Or, when we read about September 11th, we may feel tears well up in our eyes.


As you thumb through a Montana water right claim file, you may begin to imagine what it was like to be a settler of the American West. You’ve taken an enormous risk by uprooting your family and enduring a long, treacherous journey. The government has promised to give you a plot of land at low cost if you can occupy it long enough to coax it into productivity. Each day you labor with rudimentary tools and your beast of burden to dig irrigation ditches, dig a well, build a house, and plant a garden that will hopefully sustain you. Each night you nurse your aching back and joints, and recharge the blood, sweat and tears you’ll need to get through tomorrow. All the while, hazardous creatures and climes threaten to derail your efforts to provide for your family. Self-sufficiency is an essential virtue in this unforgiving place because the nearest vendor of any goods or services is a half a day’s ride away, assuming the weather is ideal.

Certainly, it takes some imagination to paint such a picture from a water right claim file. But these documents do provide us clear glimpses into the history of our communities. They explain how streams, irrigation ditches, and roads got their names. They document how that fifth-generation ranching family originally acquired the land and water that has sustained their livelihood for all these years. They hint at bitter feuds between neighbors, opportunistic investments, and financial ruin.

If you own water rights in Montana (and nearly every other Western state), it is essential to know your history. The statewide adjudication of water rights has sent water right owners scrambling to prove the “where”, the “how much” and the “since when” of their water use. Who could blame a producer for their foul mood as they struggle to determine where to insert this time-consuming task into a long to-do list that includes feeding, calving, branding, seeding, irrigating, spraying, fencing, haying, harvesting, weaning, and shipping. After all, water rights research can feel like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, often requiring trips to far flung government offices and digging up information from obscure historical sources.

If this doesn’t sound enjoyable or even possible for you, you should consider hiring a consultant. Ponderosa Advisors, the creators of Water Sage, offers a range of water rights consulting services that can help you protect your water use. Our consultants and specialists can help identify and prioritize issues regarding your water rights, file exempt stock or domestic claims with the Department of Natural Resources Conservation (DNRC), prove historical use, prepare objections, and map water use on your property. Our online water rights and land research tool, Water Sage, allows us to quickly visualize your land and water rights on a map, access important water right documents, and generate custom water right indexes and detail reports. By using the tools of today, we can effectively preserve your history.

So don’t let your water rights evaporate by ignoring your history. Think of the old-timer who dug that long ditch, stuck a sign in the ground at the diversion point to notify all his neighbors, rode down to the county clerk and recorder to file a notice of appropriation, and irrigated that field all those years. Your water right is no less than a continuous thread of history connecting you and a settler of the American West. But if you don’t take the necessary action to protect it, you risk being left with all paper and no water.

Contact us today at 406-552-4266 or to find out how Ponderosa Advisors can help you preserve your history and protect your water rights.