This article discusses a specific aspect of the Utah Lake/Jordan River General Water Rights Adjudication: options if you miss the deadline for filing a Statement of Water User’s Claim and your water rights end up on the List of Unclaimed Rights. Before tackling this topic, I want to offer some background about the General Adjudication. The Utah State Engineer (used interchangeably with the Utah Division of Water Rights) is responsible for conducting the General Adjudication. A map of the adjudication area can be viewed by clicking here. The purpose of the General Adjudication is to clarify water rights within the adjudication area. This is accomplished by defining existing water rights and removing abandoned water rights from the State Engineer’s records.
Because the General Adjudication covers a vast area and involves thousands of water rights, the State Engineer divided the adjudication area into smaller pieces referred to as subdivisions. The State Engineer then proceeded with the adjudication of individual subdivisions. When he commences adjudication of a new subdivision, the State Engineer serves a summons on all property owners and water right owners in the subdivision. The summons is followed by a notice to submit a Statement of Water User’s Claim. Thus far, the State Engineer has commenced adjudication of subdivisions in the eastern part of Salt Lake County and the northern part of Utah County.
Once the State Engineer issues the notice, claimants have 90 days to file a Water User’s Claim (a claimant may request a 30-day extension, but the request must be submitted in writing before expiration of the original 90-day deadline). This 90-day deadline is critical for any person who wants to claim a water right in the General Adjudication. If a claimant misses the deadline and its water right is not of record (i.e. the claimant doesn’t have a water right number with the State Engineer), the claimant is “forever barred” from asserting the unclaimed right.
For water rights of record (i.e. water rights with numbers recognized by the State Engineer), the State Engineer follows a specific statutory procedure for claims that are late or not filed at all. First, the State Engineer prepares a “List of Unclaimed Rights.” Second, the State Engineer serves notice of the List of Unclaimed Rights on all potential claimants (in the General Adjudication this includes all property and water rights owners in a subdivision). Third, the State Engineer holds a public meeting in the subdivision to explain the List of Unclaimed Rights. These steps are all designed to provide clear notice to claimants because if they don’t act, their water rights will be abandoned.
So, what do you do if you missed the deadline to file a Water User’s Claim and your water right is of record? You should receive notice of the List of Unclaimed Rights from the State Engineer. It is important to review the list to determine whether it contains your name or water right number (you should check both because the State Engineer’s records frequently don’t have the current owner’s name due to unreported changes in ownership). You can also check the State Engineer’s records yourself. To do this, click here. Then, scroll down until you reach the Utah Lake/Jordan River section of the page. Next, select the subdivision where your water right is located. On the subdivision page, the List of Unclaimed Rights can be found in the section titled “Dates for Materials Filed with Court,” as shown in the example below.
A claimant has 90 days from the date the State Engineer serves notice of the List of Unclaimed Rights to file a written objection with the district court and a Water User’s Claim with both the district court and the State Engineer. The district court evaluates whether the claimant’s failure to file a timely Water User’s Claim is excused by “circumstances beyond the claimant’s control,” “mistake,” or “any other reason justifying relief.” If a claimant timely files an objection and the district court determines that the claimant’s failure to file a timely Water User’s Claim is excused, the State Engineer includes the claimant’s water right in the Proposed Determination. The Proposed Determination is the State Engineer’s official recommendation to the district court of the quantity and status of water rights that should be included in the court’s decree for the subdivision. If a claimant on the List of Unclaimed Rights does not follow this procedure, the district court enters a judgment that the unclaimed rights are abandoned, and the claimant is “forever barred” from asserting the water right.
If you find yourself on the List of Unclaimed Rights, it is important to act quickly and take the State Engineer’s deadlines seriously. You have only 90 days to prepare both the objection and Water User’s Claim. The objection should be carefully thought out to explain the circumstances that justify why your Water User’s Claim was not filed by the initial deadline. The Water User’s Claim can be time consuming to prepare if the water right is complex, ownership records are not current, or for a variety of other reasons. Failure to act can be catastrophic – the district court will determine that your water rights are abandoned, and you will be forever barred from asserting them.