Fellows v. Office of Water Com’r

Fellows v. Office of Water Com’r, 285 P.3d 448 (Mont. 2012) (holding a district court improperly dismissed a plaintiff’s request for declaratory judgment because the plaintiff’s claim that the stream they had a decreed right in was hydrologically connected to a river the Water Commissioner managed was an unresolved issue of fact, rendering summary judgment inappropriate).

In 1908, the Montana Eleventh Judicial District Court adjudicated the rights on the upper portion of the Teton River and appointed a Water Commissioner to administer the decreed rights.  Fifty to sixty years later, the Water Commissioner began to divert the entire flow of the upper Teton River through the Bateman Ditch diversion around the Springhill Reach, a portion of the river that lost a significant amount of water to seepage.  The Water Commissioner implemented this diversion through the Bateman ditch without the approval of the Eleventh Judicial District Court and without any other agreement between the affected parties.

Charles Fellows (“Fellows”) owns a water right in Spring Creek near Choteau, Montana, that was adjudicated and decreed in 1892.  In February 2011, Fellows filed a complaint in the District Court, Ninth Judicial District, Teton (“district court”), pursuant to MCA § 85-5-301(1), the statute that permits the holder of a vested water right who is dissatisfied with a water commissioners’ method of distribution, to file a complaint with the district court.  Fellows’ alleged the water commissioner’s diversion of the upper Teton River through the Bateman Ditch around the Springhill Reach substantially injured his senior water right in Spring Creek.  Fellows asked the district court to grant declaratory relief until all the water rights between the upper Teton River and Spring Creek could be settled by the state’s Water Court.

The district court determined Fellows’ standing to bring a complaint against the water commissioner of the upper Teton River under MCA § 85-5-301(1) was dependent on his ability to prove the upper Teton River was hydrologically connected with Spring Creek through the Springhill Reach.  The court dismissed Fellows’ complaint finding he must first establish his standing against the water commissioner by resolving the connectivity issue with the state’s Water Court.

Instead, Fellows appealed to the Montana Supreme Court (“Court”).  The Court reversed, holding that the district court was the proper venue for the determination of the connectivity issue and the complaint against the upper Teton River water commissioner.  In examining the claim against the water commissioner, the Court held that because Fellows right was not derived from any rights on the Teton River, he had not statutory claim against the water commissioner.

Second, the Court examined Fellows’ connectivity claim.  The Court held that while the Water Court has exclusive jurisdiction for determining existing water rights, the district court has jurisdiction over the distribution of decreed water rights.  Therefore, the Court held the district court was the proper venue for both the connectivity issue and the complaint against the water commissioner because the Water Court already decreed the rights in Spring Creek and the upper Teton River.

Therefore, viewing Fellows’ allegations of the hydrological connection between Spring Creek and the upper Teton River and the allegations against the water commissioner in a light most favorable to Fellows, the Court held the district court erred in dismissing Fellow’s complaint.

The Court reversed the district court’s order of summary judgment against Fellows and remanded the issue of the connectivity between Spring Creek and the upper Teton River to the district court.