Latest: Montana judge rules groups of wells illegal

“Exempt well” laws in most Western states allow domestic wells to be drilled without water rights.

  • Bozeman, Montana in Gallatin Valley.

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BACKSTORY

“Exempt well” laws in most Western states allow domestic wells to be drilled without water rights, or even a permit in some cases (“Death by a thousand wells,” HCN, 10/19/09). These wells aren’t subject to cutbacks during drought, something that angers surface-water rights holders, who do have to cut back.  Developers started exploiting exempt wells in fast-growing, water-short areas like the Gallatin Valley in Montana, which exempts wells that pump less than 35 gallons a minute and 10 acre-feet per year. Rather than drill one well that would serve a subdivision but exceed those limits, they drilled multiple exempt wells. Originally intended to support rural homesteads, the wells were assumed to be too small to impact streamflows — something that is now disputed.

FOLLOWUP

In mid-October, a Montana judge effectively closed that state’s loophole, ruling that grouping wells for single developments violates the law’s intent. He reinstated an older interpretation that will exempt future subdivisions only if all the wells collectively meet pumping limits. That rule will stand until a state agency or the Legislature comes up with a new one.