Household Water Wells Come Under Scrutiny in Montana

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS – Montana officials have agreed to hold hearings on the potential repeal of a state rule that has allowed tens of thousands of homes to be built in rural subdivisions without water permits.

A dispute over that rule is pitting ranchers worried that water supplies are drying out against homebuilders who say tightening the spigot will undermine the state’s building industry.

A 1993 state exemption lets dozens or even hundreds of homes to be built in the same general area with no water permit, regardless of any strain put on underground aquifers.

And as the exemptions stack up — 30,000 were granted between 2000 and 2008 — ranchers are pushing back.

New homes can draw up to 35 gallons of water a minute and up to 18 million gallons a year.

An average household will use only a fraction of that total. But for farmers and ranchers in arid Western states like Montana, where creeks can run dry part of the year and underground aquifers are sporadic, water supplies are held dearly to the last drop.

“An individual home doesn’t use that much, but if it’s a home on a few acres and they’re growing hay or they have a stock pond, the use would go up significantly,” Helena attorney Matthew Bishop said Thursday.

Bishop represents those pushing for a repeal: five ranchers from the Bozeman and Absarokee areas and a Missoula environmental group, the Clark Fork Coalition.

In December, they filed a petition with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation challenging the 1993 rule. They argued that the state Constitution gives them first right to the water, through claims that date back a century or more.

Most of the exemptions are being granted outside growing cities in western Montana, including Kalispell, Missoula, Bozeman and Helena.

Home builders have vowed to fight against a repeal of the rule, which they said is crucial to encouraging development and keeping homes affordable.

In many areas of the state, watersheds have been “closed” and no new water rights are available. Absent the exemptions, that would force developers to buy rights from existing users.

A hearing officer will be appointed in the next few weeks to examine the ranchers’ claims, said Montana Natural Resources and Conservation Director Mary Sexton.

“We could have denied (the petition) and it would have gone into district court,” Sexton said. “But we felt given their request, it was appropriate to go through an administrative hearing process.”

A ruling could come in six months, she said.

The state rejected a similar petition from the Gallatin County Commission in 2006 because it would have halted development across large areas of the state.

Permits are needed only if at least two users are drawing water from the same well. The ranchers want that changed, so that two or more wells drawing from the same source would need a permit. That’s in line with rules used by the state for several years before 1993.