The legal landscape facing the use of exempt groundwater wells has changed over the last 3 years, and the Water Policy Interim Committee plans to survey the new playing field.
Exempt groundwater wells have long facilitated subdivision development in Montana. But others have worried about the long-term effects of thousands of wells on water availability and already existing water users. The legal exemption from water rights permitting allows someone to develop a groundwater well or developed spring as long as it does not pump more than 35 gallons a minute and does not use more than 10 acre-feet of water a year. However, district court and Montana Supreme Court decisions in 2014 and 2016, respectively, effectively limited the use of exempt wells. New subdivisions must now share one exemption between all of the development’s lots. As a result, developers must now obtain a water rights permit or create fewer, bigger lots.
WPIC designated a study of exempt wells as a top priority in its 2017-2018 work plan. Committee members will begin their work by hosting a panel of opponents to House Bill 339, a bill passed by the 2017 Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock. HB 339 imposed distance requirements on new exempt wells, which would loosen the rules imposed by the courts. WPIC begins its two-day meeting at 10 a.m. Oct. 9 in room 172 of the Capitol.
WPIC will also launch its study of the water rights change process. Committee members have said they want to better understand how the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation calculates a water user’s historic consumptive use, which is a key component when changing a right.
The committee will also hold hearings on the following:
WPIC is led by Sen. Pat Connell (R-Hamilton), presiding officer, and Rep. Zach Brown (D-Bozeman), vice presiding officer. Other members are Sens. Jill Cohenour (D-East Helena), Jon Sesso (D-Butte), and Jeffrey Welborn (R-Dillon); and Reps. Bob Brown (R-Thompson Falls), John Fleming (D-St. Ignatius), and Carl Glimm (R-Kila).
The meeting will be live-streamed at www.leg.mt.gov and will be broadcast on Television Montana (TVMT). Please check your local channel listings to find TVMT in your area. 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.