Thursday, April 30, 2009

2009 Amendments to Utah Water Rights Laws

(I recently wrote this article for the Utah Water Users Association newsletter.)

The majority of the bills passed during the 2009 session of the Utah Legislature will take effect on May 12, 2009. Included in this list are several important bills relating to water rights. This article examines three water rights bills that were passed during the 2009 legislative session: House Bill 18, House Bill 85, and House Bill 389. All three of these bills were sponsored by Representative Patrick Painter, a friend and ally to the water community who continues to work to improve water rights law and administration.

House Bill 18
HB 18 is entitled “Water Rights Applications and Records.” The bill revises the law on the proof process for applications to appropriate and change applications. Importantly, the bill provides that if a public water supplier is holding an approved application to meet the reasonable future water requirements of the public, it is deemed to be reasonable and due diligence in completing the appropriation or change. This essentially entitles the public water supplier to an extension of time to complete the appropriation or change.

HB 18 also amends the law on requests for segregation. Currently, the law gives the State Engineer discretion to approve or deny a segregation request. Under HB 18, if a water rights owner requests that a water right be segregated into two or more parts, the State Engineer is required to segregate. The bill also provides that applications to appropriate and change applications may be segregated, and that after the State Engineer segregates an application, each segregated part becomes a separate application on the State Engineer’s records. These changes will allow an applicant who has not completed the entire appropriation or change to segregate off the portion that has been completed and prove up that portion. The uncompleted portion becomes a separate application, and the applicant can file for an extension on that portion and prove it up in the future.

Finally, HB 18 permits a water right owner to consolidate water rights. Currently, the law allows water rights to be segregated, but there is nothing in the law that allows the water rights to be rejoined into a single water right. This provision of HB 18 permits the State Engineer to consolidate two or more water rights if the water rights are from the same source, have the same priority, and are sufficiently similar in definition.

House Bill 85

HB 85 is entitled “Mutual Benefit Corporation – Judicial Liens.” The bill protects mutual water companies in lawsuits when cash damages are assessed against them in the form of a judicial lien. Under the bill, if a judicial lien is recorded against a mutual water company’s water rights, water conveyance facilities, or other assets that are necessary to distribute water to the company’s members, a court must wait 180 days before executing the lien or forcing the sale of the assets. This 180-day period allows the mutual water company to make other arrangements to pay the judgment, such as by doing a special assessment or getting financing by using the assets as collateral. Allowing the mutual water company to pay the judgment without losing its water rights and other assets protects the company’s members, whose livelihoods may depend on receiving water from the company.

House Bill 389
HB 389 is entitled “Applications for a Small Amount of Water.” The bill changes the proof requirements for applications to appropriate and change applications for a small amount of water. A “small amount of water” is defined as the amount of water necessary to meet the requirements of one residence, ¼ acre of irrigable land, and ten stock units. Rather than submitting a traditional proof prepared by an engineer, an applicant is permitted to submit an affidavit as proof. The affidavit must declare that a residence has been constructed and is occupied and must specify the amount of land being irrigated and the number of livestock being watered. If the affidavit is filed before the date on which proof is due, the State Engineer will issue a certificate.

If proof or an affidavit is not filed within the time limit set by the State Engineer, the application lapses. However, an applicant may request reinstatement of the application by demonstrating that a residence was constructed and occupied within the original time limit and that the water has been beneficially used. If the applicant meets this burden, the State Engineer will issue a certificate, although the priority date becomes the date the request for reinstatement was filed.

All three bills unanimously passed both the House and the Senate, were signed by Governor Huntsman, and will become effective on May 12, 2009.

A special thanks goes out to Representative Painter for sponsoring these bills and for his continuing efforts to work with the water community to develop and improve Utah water law.

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