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Subject Guides: Water Rights

Page history last edited by Roberta 5 years, 10 months ago


Missoula Power House and Dam, June 6, 1908

Catalog Number: ST 001.419


PDF Version




Water Rights

Since the birth of the territory in 1864, Montana farmers, ranchers, and legislators have grappled with the issue of water rights. Since the 1870s the doctrine of “prior appropriation” has been the guiding principle in Montana water law, “first in time, first in right.” A lack of state administration of water rights plagued the state, permitting the over-appropriation of water from streams as well as countless courtroom battles. In the 1970s the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation was designated the state agency responsible for "adjudicating" conflicting rights. The process of adjudication continues today.




Featured Collection


Collection Title Catalog Number Description Link
Montana Carey Land Act Board records, 1903-1962 
 RS 32
 The Montana Carey Land Act Board took over the land reclamation duties of the State Arid Land Grant Commission in 1903. Records consist of correspondence, minutes, irrigation project files, contracts, financial records, and printed material. 
Finding aid available.  Click on Catalog Record and then follow the link under Electronic Access.
Catalog Record
Montana State Engineer records, 1864-1964
RS 34

The Montana State Engineer was responsible for developing state water projects. Records include general correspondence, outgoing correspondence, and subject files on water rights. In addition there are organizational charts and job descriptions; biennial reports, and miscellaneous articles. 

Finding aid available.  Click on Catalog Record and then follow the link under Electronic Access.

Catalog Record 
Luppold Vs. Lewis, Et Al. records, 1890 
SC 1309
Luppold vs. Lewis, et al. was heard in District Court, Meagher County, MT, between William Luppold and 35 defendants, including Len Lewis, over irrigation water rights on Luppold's ranch. Consists of a photocopy of a transcript of testimony.

Catalog Record
Elmer "Sonny" Morigeau interview, 1989 July 31 
OH 1239
Includes discussion of irrigation and water rights on the Flathead Reservation.

Catalog Record
Water Resources Survey  S 333.91 M76E

Historical information about water development and use, including detailed maps. Surveys completed by county. Many county surveys are available online.

Catalog Record


Explore the topic further

This guide is only an introduction to water rights. To learn more, search our catalog using the search terms below or click the link for the Water Rights Resource List.



Water rights

Water use


Irrigation laws

Water compact Water supply 
Water - Law and legislation 
(Specific irrigation project)  



Click here for the Water Rights Resource List




 Montana Historical Society Research Center

 225 North Roberts, P.O. Box 201201, Helena, MT 59620-1201, 406-444-2681, 406-444-2696 (fax).



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