Water Policy Interim Committee

Water Committee to Take Another Look at Exempt Wells

Committee: Water Policy Interim Committee
Author: Jason Mohr
Posted on August 10, 2017

Image of River and sunset

Exempt ground water wells and water rights changes emerged as the focus of the 2017-2018 Water Policy Interim Committee. WPIC met on July 31-Aug. 1 and developed a work plan for the next 13 months, including formal study of these two issues.

Exempt ground water wells are a perennial issue for the committee. During the 2017 legislative session, the Legislature passed House Bill 339, but Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed the measure. The bill proposed distance restrictions on new exempt ground water wells. WPIC proposes to use that bill as a starting point for its interim work.

Members of the Water Policy Interim Committee

Members of the Water Policy Interim Committee and other participants listen to presenters at the Prickly Pear Creek fishing access site during the committee’s “A water tour of the Helena Valley” on July 31.

State law exempts a user from the water rights permitting process for a well or developed spring of up to 35 gallons a minute, as long as it does not exceed 10 acre-feet of water a year. The issue has been cloudy recently, however, as the Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation misapplied state law. Specifically, the court ruled that DNRC incorrectly defined the term “combined appropriation” as a physical connection between two or more wells or developed springs appropriated from the same source. Under state law, a combined appropriation — with or without a physical connection — may not exceed the exemption’s flow and volume limits without obtaining a water rights permit. The ruling affects subdivisions that intend to rely on individual wells for each newly created lot.

The committee discussed the water rights change process during the 2015-2016 interim and will continue to explore that issue. Any change to a user’s place of diversion, place of use, purpose of use, or place of storage triggers a DNRC review.

While WPIC will likely discuss exempt wells and the water rights change process at each of their six remaining meetings, the committee will also discuss the following issues at some time during the interim:

  • AIS (aquatic invasive species) issues
  • Best management practices  for streamside management zones in forestry projects
  • CSKT water rights settlement implementation and legislation in Congress
  • Floodplain permitting
  • Forest Service water rights compact
  • Future federal funding of water-related programs in DEQ, DNRC
  • HB 433 (2017), which proposed prohibiting towns, cities, and regional water authorities from using eminent domain powers to condemn water or water rights used primarily for agriculture
  • Improvements to Montana’s water quality
  • Montana State University study of impacts of silvicultural activities on watersheds
  • Montana Water Court, including a follow-up on WPIC’s 2015-16 interim report (Considerations for the Future of Water Rights) and potential court-related legislation for the 2019 legislative session
  • Regular reports from the BLM, NRCS, and USFS on water issues
  • Water rights permitting process by DNRC, including an update on the implementation of HB 40 (2009)
  • Water storage, including recommendations in the State Water Plan

Next Meeting

The committee meets next on Oct. 9-10, 2017. For more information on the committee’s activities and upcoming meeting, including a full agenda, please visit the committee’s website or contact Jason Mohr, committee staff.

Committee Website:  www.leg.mt.gov/water
Committee Staff:  jasonmohr@mt.gov or 406-444-1640