You are here: home   Blogs   The GOAT Blog   One step forward, one step back
The GOAT Blog

One step forward, one step back

Document Actions
Tip Jar Donation

Your donation supports independent non-profit journalism from High Country News.

Cally Carswell | Aug 25, 2010 04:35 PM

"We suck at managing exempt wells," Michael 'Aquadoc' Campana bluntly declared on his blog late last year. 

Water experts across the West likely nodded in agreement. And last week, even Montana regulators owned up to this shortcoming. The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation acknowledged that subdivision developers were exploiting a loophole in state water law that allows rural residents to drill domestic wells -- which in theory don't pump enough water to have a measurable impact on existing water rights -- without a permit.

The jist of the problematic loophole, as I wrote last winter, is this:

In Montana, groundwater wells pumping less than 35 gallons a minute and no more than 10 acre feet a year don’t require a permit and aren't regulated under prior appropriation during drought. A 60-lot subdivision, for instance, can legally drill 60 wells into the same aquifer without permits or environmental review as long as those wells aren't connected. Even though the law says the exemption doesn't cover a "combined appropriation" by multiple wells from the same source if, together, they suck more than 35 gallons a minute, the state only considers wells that are physically connected by pipes to be a "combined appropriation."

The Montana DNRC rejected a petition from a group of senior water rights holders in the Gallatin Valley to close the loophole altogether, but promised to seek reforms to the law. The agency suggested that the number of lots at a time that could be legally served by permit-exempt wells should be limited to 12. In theory, that means large developments would need water rights before they could be built.

But the compromise offers the petitioners little comfort, said Matthew Bishop of the Western Environmental Law Center. "(Developers) can come in one year and put in 12 (lots), come in another year and put in 12," Bishop said. "They're going to find ways around it."

So basically, we still suck at managing exempt wells.

That's true in many states beyond Montana. "It's not so much that state water resources departments don't recognize the problem," according to Campana, "it's that they don't have the resources or laws to regulate these wells because state legislatures fear doing anything about them." In some states, bills to reform exempt wells laws are killed almost annually. Without legislative action, though, the authority of state agencies to regulate the wells can be unclear.

You can read about the trouble with exempt wells West-wide in "Death by a thousand wells."

Cally Carswell is High Country News' multimedia fellow.

Email Newsletter

The West in your Inbox

Follow Us

Follow us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Follow our RSS feeds!
  1. Idaho’s sewer system is the Snake River | As Big Ag flourishes, this massive waterway suffer...
  2. Closure of federal sheep facility would be a victory for grizzlies |
  3. The Latest: Wild Mexican wolf pups born in Sierra Madre | The species still struggles on both sides of the b...
  4. Summer swimming in a Washington lake | A writer takes the plunge in frigid water.
  5. Colorado water users gird for first statewide plan |
  1. The death of backpacking? | Younger people don’t seem interested in this out...
  2. Idaho’s sewer system is the Snake River | As Big Ag flourishes, this massive waterway suffer...
  3. A graceful gazelle becomes a pest | Inrroducing an African gazelle called the oryx for...
  4. Illegal immigrants take jobs from Americans | A native-born New Mexico Hispanic points out that ...
  5. Plains sense | Ten years after Frank and Deborah Popper first pro...
More from Water
How much does a great monsoon season relieve drought?
How much water goes into your food? Growing everyday food items requires a surprising amount of water.
Idaho’s sewer system is the Snake River As Big Ag flourishes, this massive waterway suffers.
All Water
 
© 2014 High Country News, all rights reserved. | privacy policy | terms of use | powered by Plone