Montana Water Rights Run Deep for UM Law Student

UM law student Brooke Reynolds, serving this summer as an intern on the Montana Water Court, has learned the process for determining who owns rights to water can be extremely complicated.

MISSOULA – There’s an old saying in the West: Whisky is for drinking; water is for fighting over.

University of Montana third-year law student Brooke Reynolds is learning firsthand just how contentious water rights can be in Montana, serving this summer as an intern on the Montana Water Court.

Reynolds has learned in her short time on the court that water claims can stretch back decades, even to Montana’s statehood, and the process for determining who truly owns rights to a body of a water can be extremely complicated.

“There are a lot of nuances and paperwork involved. Some claims go back so far they are actually handwritten decrees,” Reynolds said. “We work to consolidate cases and quantify water claims. The state needs to determine where all the water is going.”

The court was created by the Montana Legislature in 1979 to adjudicate more than 219,000 state law-based water rights, as well as Indian and Federal reserved water rights claims made before 1973. The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation handles cases after 1973.

“Water law is a complex area and something you have to learn as you go,” said Professor Michelle Bryan, who teaches water law at UM’s Alexander Blewett III School of Law and calls Reynolds “impressive” in her enthusiasm for the subject, attention to detail and creativity. “The court has been excellent at mentoring students like Brooke, and we very much appreciate the ability they give them to learn about this important issue.”

For Reynolds, the attraction to water goes back to her days growing up in New Jersey – not exactly the landscape that seeded water rights during the Homestead Act.

“I get a lot of questions about that,” Reynolds said. “But my parents were public school teachers, and in the summer they worked as fly-fishing guides in Montana. It’s why they named me Brooke.”

Those summers spent in resource-rich Montana instilled a passion for the state, and early in high school Reynolds developed an appreciation for the importance of water, particularly to the ranchers and farmers who depended on it for their livelihoods.

Her interest in the subject grew laser-focused, alongside her goal of attending law school to learn and ultimately practice environmental law. It led to her decision to get an environmental science degree from Montana State University. She chose MSU because her parents had moved permanently to Montana by then and “Bozeman was the closest big town,” Reynolds said.

When it came to applying to law school, there was one choice, she said.

“I applied only to UM’s law school, and I told them that in my application,” Reynolds said. “At the time, I had never been to Missoula, but I love living here now. Love it.”

Reynolds enrolled in UM’s unique joint degree program in law and public administration. The program allows students to complete both their J.D. and MPA in a shorter time period than if taken consecutively, and it prepares them for careers in government service that require specialized legal knowledge.

Reynolds will do a clinic rotation next year at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and hopes one day to work for a government agency where she can combine her legal and administrative interests. She has two main goals for wherever she lands.

“I want to stay in Montana,” she said. “And, of course, I want to be a water lawyer.”


Contact: Andi Armstrong, director of marketing and communications, UM Alexander Blewitt III School of Law, 406-243-6509,