Farmers Canal

The headgate to the Farmers Canal is the start of a large system of irrigation ditches used to transport water from the Gallatin River to farm lands in the valley.

Matching buyers and sellers of water rights as well as firms that can work out the notoriously complex transactions is the goal of a new online platform in the West and in Montana.

Kristina Ribella started Western Water Market earlier this year after working as a project manager for Washington Water Trust. It was there working on in-stream flow transfers that she saw an opportunity to create an online service to help break through some of the challenges.

“I had people wanting to sell water rights and couldn’t find the right fit – I saw how difficult it was to make those connections,” she said. “It was just this huge inefficiency in the market and I thought that there has to be a better way to do this.”

In the West, water rights have a priority date, meaning that the oldest water right has the first allocation of water, followed by the next oldest and so on. But that also comes with a “use it or lose it” requirement, meaning that if the allocated water is not used for its intended purpose for more than five years, that water right can be relinquished. One issue Ribella has seen is that a water right may have an early priority date and the owner still has documentation and believes the right to be valid, but it may have been relinquished decades ago.

Relatively few water right transactions take place or intended uses change, and when they do, it is generally not a very public process, Ribella said. Due to the specialized knowledge of water rights law, finding professionals to assist with the process can also be a stumbling block.

“Case law is changing, rules and regulations are changing, so with all of those dynamics working with a local expert is really important – you really can’t do it without them,” she said.

Western Water Market uses a subscription model for water right holders or prospective buyers to place monthly ads about what they are offering or seeking at the website westernwatermarket.com. Firms that specialize in water rights can also advertise their services on the platform. In its first few months of operation, the platform has generated posts in multiple states including several in Montana.

Ribella speculates that in some cases the platform could drive up the price of sales, but also having it in an open market with increased offerings of water rights could push prices down in some cases.

“I hope to see more buyers and sellers as this becomes more public,” she said. “As development continues to increase and our water resources are stressed even more through climate change, I think there’s a real need for this market.”

HydroSolutions with offices in Helena and Billings is one of the firms that has begun offering services on Western Water Market and placing ads for some of its clients. Water rights specialist Chris Carparelli hopes the platform will help buyers and sellers find each other and address some of the state’s critical water needs.

“We know in Montana we have a robust irrigated agricultural economy, we have a robust commitment to conservation and things like in-stream flows, increasing demands for municipal water supplies, developing industrial uses, so if you can create a place where people can find each other it gives everybody an equal opportunity,” he said. “The goal of Western Water Market is to help that connection be a little more straightforward and visible and help educate people on water rights issues in those states.”

HydroSolutions was an early participant in the market and Carparelli says that so far, his company has been pleased to see growth and what it could evolve into.