On Wednesday, legislators struggled with the recurring issue of water well exemptions in an effort to stave off the increasing conflict between developers and landowners and water rights holders, including agricultural producers and cities.
Two similar bills, Senate Bill 19 and House Bill 561, sought to define which clusters of small wells, known as a “combined appropriation,” would no longer be exempt from water rights regulations. While both bills passed out of their committees, the House bill failed 32-68 Wednesday, while the Senate bill survived.
In the House floor debate, Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, asked legislators to support his bill to prevent the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation from coming up with its own definition.
“I’ve seen the DNRC rules that are being drafted, and they’re quite stringent,” Fitzpatrick said. “We can make a law or let the executive branch make it for us.”
Both houses’ bills eliminated exemptions for two or more wells if they were piped together and watered the same parcel of land. That means subdivisions would be unaffected because their hundreds of wells are rarely physically connected and each waters its own parcel.
That could tax aquifers in places like Gallatin County, where subdivisions have added more than 670 exempt wells a year between 1993 and 2010.
Exempt well owners don’t need to buy water rights or permits and cannot be regulated if water becomes scarce.
On the Senate floor, Sen. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, defended SB 19, echoing Fitzpatrick’s argument and garnering a 29-21 vote.
Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, proposed an amendment to expand the definition to include subdivisions but it failed.
“I’ve supported development all along,” Ripley said. “But my constituents have talked with me and we need to support our constituents.”
Montana’s exemption for small wells was created before the growth that has almost doubled the population since 1970.
As agricultural land has been converted into large subdivisions, developers often choose to install wells rather than paying to link into city water supplies.